NASA's spacewalking suits are in short supply, and a replacement is still years away despite the nearly $200 million spent on new technology, the space agency's inspector general reported Wednesday.
A next-generation suit for spacewalking astronauts is needed for future space travel, including trips to Mars. But a lack of a formal plan and destinations has complicated suit development, according to the report . At the same time, NASA has reduced funding for suit development, putting more priority instead on space habitats.
According to the report, NASA is dealing with a variety of design and health risks associated with the spacewalking suits used by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The suits were developed more than 40 years ago and intended for 15 years.
Of the original backpacks containing life-support equipment, only 11 of the 18 are still in use. That might not be enough to last until the station's retirement in 2024, let alone a possible extension until 2028, the report stated.
There have been 3,400 mostly minor problems with spacewalking suits, in ground testing and in orbit, since their development in the 1970s, the report noted. In more than 200 spacewalks, astronauts have encountered 27 "significant incidents" with the suits. The most serious was the near drowning of an Italian astronaut in 2013 when water from his cooling system flooded his helmet. Other problems over the years have included glove damage and burning or stinging eyes.
As the spacewalking suits age, "NASA must deal with a dwindling number of flight-ready spacesuits and with mitigating risks related to their design and maintenance," the report said.
NASA needs a formal plan, especially if it hopes to test a new suit before the space station ends operation in 2024, the report concluded. It also needs to compare the cost of maintaining the current crop of suits with developing new ones.
NASA's next spacewalk is set for May 12. Veteran spacewalker, Peggy Whitson, will venture outside with newcomer Jack Fischer.