NASA Chooses New Spacesuit Maker for Moon Missions

Americans may have to wrap their heads around a new spacesuit for future moonwalkers in 2020.

NASA's new spacesuit will come in two versions that protect future astronauts on the surface of the moon, as well as during travel to and from the International Space Station.

The initial $183.8 million spacesuit contract to design, develop and test the new spacesuit through September 2014 was awarded to Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston, Texas, the agency announced Thursday.

"We're ready to put them to work and put boot prints back on the moon," said Glenn Lutz, project manager for the Constellation Spacesuit System at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in a teleconference.

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One version of the Constellation spacesuit will outfit as many as six astronauts traveling up to the space station in the Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based successor to NASA's three space shuttles after their planned 2010 retirement.

Astronauts can then reconfigure parts of their suit around a second version's torso, which is specifically designed for providing more mobility on the moon, before climbing into an Altair lander to head to the lunar surface.

The overall suit design is aimed at protecting against abrasive lunar dust, not to mention micrometeorites for emergency spacewalk activities.

Apollo astronauts had to hop around on the moon due to their stiff older suits, but the Constellation spacesuit will give future astronauts a new step as they roam about the lunar surface during missions lasting up to six months, NASA engineers said.

"Our design approach is to make it like walking across the desert floor to look at your favorite rock," Lutz said.

He added that the new suits would allow astronauts to walk more normally and focus on performing lunar geology and other work, although he commended Apollo astronauts for "figuring out how to ambulate across the surface" in their older, bulkier suits.

Different Constellation spacesuit sizes will allow almost any astronaut, short or tall, to fit inside.

The current spacesuit used for spacewalks, the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), comes in relatively few sizes and cannot fit all astronauts.

However, the EMU will remain the workhorse for space-station astronauts even after the new Constellation spacesuit comes online — final shuttle flights will store extra EMUs on the space station before the space shuttle's retirement.

The suit requirements aim for a lifespan of six to eight years for suits worn up to the space station, after which they will be used as training suits. The current plan for the lunar surface suits involves leaving or storing the heavy backpacks on the surface of the moon after each mission.

As makers of the new suits, Oceaneering International will also likely get two additional contract options worth $302.1 million and $260 million for designing the lunar suit version and producing the spacesuits through 2018.

"Our team is excited about this tremendous opportunity to assist NASA in pushing the boundaries of space exploration," said Mark Gittleman, Vice President and General Manager of Oceaneering Space Systems, in an announcement.

Both old and new spacesuits tackle similar problems of protecting astronauts in harsh and unforgiving environments, despite expected improvements for the new Constellation suits. That means future spacesuits may just be getting a facelift instead of a complete makeover in look.

"The Apollo suit had a very endearing quality to me when I was growing up," Lutz said, adding that the new Constellation spacesuit would not look drastically different but "it won't be my father's spacesuit."

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