NASA appears to be running short of spacesuits to be used by the astronauts fir future space missions, according to the US space agency’s auditor report.
The spacesuits, named Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU), used by the NASA astronauts who are currently on the International Space Station (ISS) were made more than 40 years ago. They have now outlasted their original 15-year design life.
"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," NASA Office of Inspector General's Office of Audits said in the report.
"As different missions require different designs, the lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development. Moreover, the Agency has reduced the funding dedicated to spacesuit development in favour of other priorities such as an in-space habitat," the report said.
Right now, NASA appears to be facing shortage of the spacesuits and only a fraction of the original supply for the ISS is fully functional. There is a risk that NASA may not have enough spacesuits to last through the end of the ISS programme which has been scheduled for 2024, The Verge reported.
In 2009, Oceaneering International, Inc received a contract worth $148 million for spacesuits for the astronauts. NASA considered the requirement of spacesuits for astronauts during deep space and when on Moon after it began building a rocket and spacecraft to send humans to the Moon a decade ago as part of the Constellation Program.
However, in early 2010, then US President Barack had cancelled NASA’s Constellation program. Later in 2010, senior officials at the Johnson Space Center recommended that the Constellation spacesuit contract be cancelled as the agency had its own engineers to work on a new spacesuit and. Also, NASA didn’t have a clear need for deep-space spacesuits. However, agency leaders at NASA's headquarters in Washington, DC overruled the Houston officials.
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin sharply criticizes this decision in a new report. "The continuation of this contract did not serve the best interests of the agency’s spacesuit technology development efforts," the report states.
Shockingly, according to the report it was found that NASA wasted whopping $80.6 million on the contract with Oceaneering before it was finally ended last year.
NASA told the inspector general that the decision was taken to continue the contract as the space agency wanted to keep industry engaged in spacesuit design. However, the report dismissed the idea saying that the agency’s in-house Advanced Space Suit Project shared several contractors and primary subcontractors with Oceaneering.
Many of NASA's in-house concepts and designs were ahead of those under the Oceaneering contract, the report found.
"For example, one study found that the Rapid Cycle Amine swingbed used in the Advanced Space Suit Project design is 'far more advanced' than the (Constellation) concept," the report states.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of human spaceflight, argued that the report is "overly critical" of the agency's decision and that "we respectfully disagree that the facts presented to the OIG support that portion of the report." He said this in a written response to the inspector general.
However, Martin appears not to be moved by the response from Gerstenmaier as he wrote that "we continue to believe" the contract should have been cancelled in 2011.
The new report has also raised concerns about the existing stock of spacesuits of NASA that are used for the International Space Station program for spacewalks. Some design problems have been experienced by NASA with these Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs, in recent years. In 2013, a water issue was experienced with Luca Parmitano's helmet. Also, for the future operations, NASA only has 11 of the original 18 EMU units left.
"The inventory may not be adequate to last through planned retirement of the ISS in 2024," the report states. "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 has recommended that NASA should chalk out a formal plan for the design, production and testing of next-generation spacesuits to meet the space agency's needs.