NASA may be running out of spacesuits.
According to a new report from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General, NASA may not have enough spacesuits to make it through 2024—the year when the Space Station is expected to end its operational life under NASA and the other international agencies.
The suits, called extravehicular mobility units (EMUs), are designed to keep astronauts safe when taking spacewalks outside of the ISS.
The OIG report said that “only 11 of the 18 original EMU Primary Life Support System units – a backpack-like structure that performs a variety of functions required to keep an astronaut alive during a spacewalk – are still in use, raising concerns that the inventory may not be adequate to last through the planned retirement of the ISS.”
The report also found that NASA isn’t all that close to actually having another spacesuit ready to go for any of the agency’s big plans in the future.
While NASA has spent millions of dollars developing various other spacesuits that could be used for lunar or Martian missions, it has yet to put those designs into effect and create a new suit to keep astronauts alive on deep space journeys.
This isn’t entirely NASA’s fault, however.
NASA hasn’t had a clear, well-funded directive with specific parameters for a mission to Mars or elsewhere in quite some time—without that, it’s difficult to actually craft any type of spacesuit for a mission.
“Despite spending nearly $200 million on NASA’s next-generation spacesuit technologies, the Agency remains years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for use on future exploration missions,” the OIG wrote.
“… Over the past 8 years, NASA has managed three separate spacesuit development efforts intended to support future missions – Constellation Space Suit System (CSSS), Advanced Space Suit Project, and Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS). As of April 2017, none of these efforts have delivered a flight-ready spacesuit.”
At the moment, NASA only uses its EMU spacesuit for spacewalks. Astronauts started using EMUs in 1981, during the shuttle era, and since then the agency has redesigned and added bits and parts to make them functional for a variety of space activities.
However, it’s not like NASA’s EMUs are perfect.
According to the OIG report, from the spacesuits development in the 1970s through April 2017, astronauts have experienced 27 “significant incidents” over the course of 204 spacewalks.
While no astronaut has died or been seriously injured as the result of these issues, there have been some pretty dramatic events caused by EMU malfunctions in decades since its development.
A spacesuit majorly malfunctioned in 2013 when European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano was out on a spacewalk with NASA’s Chris Cassidy.
Parmitano’s suit started leaking water into his helmet, nearly drowning him and forcing mission managers to abort the walk.
It’s not too late for NASA to work toward having a more effective spacesuit fleet going forward.
The OIG is recommending that the agency study exactly what it will take to maintain their fleet of EMUs and develop a new spacesuit for future exploration.