Why are NASA's xEMU space suits so expensive?

Why Are NASA's New Nerdy Looking Spacesuits So Damn Expensive?

  • NASA's outdated near 50-year-old suits cost between US$15-$22 million in 1974.
  • NASA has not developed a single space suit since and only 4 remain today.
  • The development of new suits began in 2009 and NASA's investment is reported at $250 million.

When NASA announced the new designs for the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) spacesuit - a first since the Apollo era circa 1974 - we weren't exactly blown away at its aesthetics. But what did blow most people away was the price tag on development: $250 million and an estimated minimum of 12 million per suit.

Even if you think that sounds about right, there's still no new space suits apart from the gaudy yet flexible, one-size-fits-all xEMU prototype unveiled in October last year.

So a fair question has been raised by a follower in our Australian Space Society and we're more than happy to answer.

Ladies and gentlemen, let's: Ask ARSE!

"Watched Apollo 13 again the other day and I love the thought of space suits and the tech behind them. Is it true there are no new suits? Read something you posted about them and was just wondering.

Keep up the good work,
- Tony

Thanks for the question and the continued support in spreading us mate.

It is a very interesting issue especially as America continues to flirt with our moon and Mars as missions within this decade. 

But first, they have to jump into space apparel so let's *cough cough * follow suit...

NASA's xEMU spacesuits have cost $200 million in development

Why Are Spacesuits So Expensive?

First thing you have to think about is what space suits actually do.

They are very complicated pieces of machinery that you should consider human-shaped spacecrafts and not clothing. They have to protect the astronaut from:

  1. The vacuum of space.
  2. Solar radiation.
  3. Particles travelling at around 30,000km/h.

They must also provide:

  1. Oxygen.
  2. Communications.
  3. Instrument readings (Telemetry).
  4. Any other human need for survival or basic comfort as astronauts could be in them for hours or even days.

They are composed from inner to outer in:  :

  1. A large pressurised bladder that houses the wearer in urethane-coated nylon.
  2. A restraining layer of dacron (polyester protective material).
  3. An outer thermal garment of Neoprene coated nylon (heat, liquid, weather resistance). 
  4. Five layers of aluminised Mylar (heat resistance).
  5. A final fabric surface layer of Teflon (suit seals), Kevlar (structural reinforcement), and Nomex (lightweight heat resistance).

Sounds expensive?

It is.

The new xEMU suit has this and a whole lot more pictured below.

The composition of the typical space suit

What Happened To All The Suits?

From an original 12 suits created during the shuttle era of the 1970s, just 4 remain and are far beyond their use-by date of 15 years.

The very first suit was purely a test dummy, the second was destroyed amidst ground testing, and two more suits were destroyed in the Challenger disaster of 1986 followed by another two in the Columbia disaster in 2003.

The final loss was during the SpaceX-7's 2015 cargo mission in which the rocket experienced an "anomaly" in the fuel tanks and exploded minutes after takeoff. The price tag on replacing this suit is reportedly US$250 million.

The remaining 11 suits have been deemed "damaged" and attempts to refurbish them is not looking good, which leaves us with the final four. 

This is why NASA's all-female spacewalk was postponed, as sizes were not appropriate. 

 NASA now finds itself in a race against time to develop and manufacture enough suits needed for the Artemis project, a lunar excursion to build a pathway to Mars. 

xEMU spacesuit is reported to cost in the tens of millions of US dollars.

Much of the cost in these suits is not just the design and requirements to survive in space, that we know from trips to space and the moon. If it was that simple we could just build more of the old suits.

But... There are two issues with that.

The first is that most - if not all - of the production companies involved in the first suit production have all ceased operations. So even recreating the old suits would cost a pretty penny in design, development, testing, and the list goes on.

The second is adapting them to both survive the harsh conditions of space/ the moon and the entirely different world of Mars. If we were simply building more suits to return to the moon would be one thing but we are developing suits to go to an unknown world with conditions that are different to both Earth and the Moon.

We hope this answer helps mate and we thank you for getting behind ARSE.

Now we know you can't have your own spacesuit, but the very next bests thing is getting behind ARSE with your very own supporter merchandise here.

Thanks for reading and keep following to thrust into the deep unknown...

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