The wardrobes on the International Space Station (ISS) are looking tired, empty, and very last season. With the next generation of spacesuits still not expected to be usable for years to come, a new report says the current supply might not even last until the ISS's retirement in a few years time.
The new report from NASA's Office of Audits looked into the condition and future of the space agency’s Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU), the only spacesuits used on the ISS for spacewalks.
They found just 11 of the original 18 EMU spacesuits are still in use, which may not be enough to last until the planned retirement of the ISS in 2024. These current spacesuits have long outlasted their expected lifespan of 15 years. Although they have undergone many refurbishments and individual redesigns, they were originally developed in 1974 and first flew in 1981.
“Given these issues, NASA will be challenged to continue to support the (spacewalk) needs of the ISS with the current fleet of EMUs through 2024 – a challenge that will escalate significantly if station operations are extended to 2028," the report concludes.
Spacesuits are pretty much a one-person mini spacecraft, playing a key role in the work and maintenance that takes place outside the space station. Not only do they have to provide the astronaut with oxygen, they have to control the humidity, protect from space junk and radiation, account for differing temperatures and pressures, and provide human waste disposal (after all, they are out there for hours sometimes).
NASA has spent nearly $200 million developing three new next generation space suits for future space exploration missions, including the mission to Mars. However, even the testing of these developments is “years away” and the funding for further spacesuit development has been slashed in recent years. The report also highlights some of NASA's misspending on spacesuit technology with outside contractors, pointing towards the continuation of contracts whereby they "could have avoided spending almost $80.8 million.”
Throughout its long life, the current spacesuit model has suffered a handful of screw-ups and glitches. In the 1990s there were two incidents of astronauts becoming too cold on spacewalks. Astronauts during the 2000s also reported feeling burning eyes from the helmet’s anti-fog chemical. Since 2013, there have also been multiple incidents of water entering the space suit helmets, sometimes as much as 1.5 liters.
As the ISS astronauts are left with a dwindling selection of aging spacesuits, the report concludes NASA needs to make a plan of action in terms of future spacewalks, adding there’s very little room for delay when it comes to decommissioning the ISS in a few years time.