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NASA Has A Spacesuit Shortage



This is Lulu's log - stardate May 7, 2017, where we consider matters of space, the stars, the universe.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States is funding work on the International Space Station until the year 2024. But...


TOM HANKS: (As Jim Lovell) Houston, we have a problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a spacesuit shortage. There are only 11 extravehicular mobility units, or EMUs, in use. They were designed over 40 years ago, and they were only meant to last 15 years. A new report from NASA's Office of Inspector General says the current stock of suits just isn't enough.

Pablo de Leon is director of the spacesuit laboratory at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and he joins us now.


PABLO DE LEON: Hello, Lulu. How are you?


How did NASA get into this pickle?

DE LEON: These suits were designed in the '70s, and they were supposed to be replaced for something else - something new by 1990. And what happened is there was never funding to create a new spacesuit system. The cost of a spacesuit originally was about $22 million. Building one from scratch right now can be as much as 250 million.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Two hundred and fifty million dollars to build a spacesuit?

DE LEON: Yes, I'm afraid so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I think people may be surprised to learn - I was surprised to learn that these spacesuits aren't custom fitted. We imagine that somehow, because we are living in 2017, they would be fitted to the actual astronauts using them.

DE LEON: Well, during the Apollo 8 times, the spacesuits were specifically built for each astronaut. But with the space shuttle program and because originally the idea was to fly way more missions per month than finally happened, they came up with this idea of mixing arms or leg sections to adjust to different astronauts.

Now, this is the way it worked during the space shuttle because the space shuttle will go up and then bring the suits down, so NASA and the contractors were able to resize them and to inspect them and to service them, etc. But now we don't have the shuttle anymore, so we have to rely on the Russians as the only human-rated spacecraft that we have to go to the space station and back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just a quick question - do the Russians have better spacesuits than us? I feel like this is in the national interest to know.

DE LEON: I'll say that there is no possible comparison. If you ask an American astronaut, he'll say or she will say - well, the Russian spacesuits are more sturdy. But they work at a higher pressure, so it's more difficult to bend your arms, and it's more difficult to use your hands, etc. But I can say that they are better, you know. They're just different.


So just briefly, where do you think NASA can go now? What are their options for maintaining the spacesuits that they have for the International Space Station?

DE LEON: Well, I believe that in regards with the International Space Station, the only option may be to keep the same suits operational right now, the shuttle EMUs, the best that they can. I don't think that there is time in the remaining years of the International Space Station to try something new. I think it will be better to develop a new program for the new destinations that NASA has in mind. But for the International Space Station, you know, what I would do is to keep the shuttle EMUs operational.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pablo de Leon is director of the UND Space Suit Laboratory. He's in Grand Forks, N.D.

Thanks so much for being with us.

DE LEON: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.