NASA has had to agree to suspend all routine excursions for its astronauts so far, while waiting to learn more about a new liquid leak that occurred during a full excursion in March last year.
It’s official: NASA has been reluctantly forced to announce the suspension of routine space travel for all its astronauts for at least several months. The reason is stated: she can no longer trust her suits, after several critical incidents, some of which have endangered the lives of astronauts.
In the immediate term, this means that all space travel (EVA) that is not considered absolutely essential will be postponed indefinitely. American astronauts will therefore only go out if the International Space Station is in urgent need of repair; unless there is a priority mission, there is no longer any question of setting foot outside the station until further notice.
“Until we better understand what happened in the last EVA, we will not date anymore.“, Confirms Dana Weigel, one of the people in charge of managing the station, quoted by Space.com. This break should last at least until next July. It is on this date that the defective or suspicious combinations will be repatriated to Earth for analysis. From this date, it will probably be necessary to wait a few weeks to determine with certainty the cause of the collapse.
A new fluid leak that evokes an old trauma
This decision is directly related to a series of malfunctions that gave NASA teams cold sweats, beginning with the astronauts in question. The last incident of this type took place on March 23, and it was the German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer who paid the price.
During his exit, the temperature control system in his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suit broke. He therefore found out a water leak in his sealed helmet; an obviously critical situation in the vacuum of space. This represents a direct danger to the astronaut, left to himself and locked inside a flooded jar in the middle of space vacuum. This fluid can also seep into other subsystems; this can e.g. cause a dramatic failure of the communication or oxygen circulation system.
And unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. In 2013, it was the Italian Luca Parmitano, who was in the same situation, incidentally captured on video. “My head is very wet and I feel it getting worse”, He began by declaring to the control team 400 kilometers below, visibly uneasy.
A shocking testimony that surprised NASA; after a few checks and exchanges of glances, both worried and confused, the officials ended up interrupting the mission in case of emergency. Well it took them. Fortunately, the astronaut was able to remain calm, because the situation could easily have had a dramatic outcome.
“The liquid completely covered my eyes and nose. It was very hard to see. I heard nothing. It was very difficult to communicate. I came back the other way from memory and groped back until I found the airlock, ”Says the astronaut. A shocking testimony.
A survey next July
“Of all the issues we’ve encountered in EVA so far, this is probably the most serious“, Confirmed Chris Hansen, responsible for the investigation cell that handled the Parmitano case. “I am not aware of any other malfunction that would pose such a danger”.
At the time, NASA also decided to suspend the excursions until investigators could shed light on the case. At the conclusion of their investigation, they determined that the leak was associated with one filter clogged with silica. Following a malfunction in a water treatment center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, this pollution would have entered the coolant circulating through the suit to prevent the astronaut from being burned by the sun.
The analysis scheduled for July next year will determine whether this was again the case for Matthias Maurer’s accident. “We will look for clear signs of contamination, manipulation or otherwise, ”Explains Dana Weigel, Program Manager at JSC. Until then, NASA will send a shipment of absorbent sheets to limit the risk during important missions. But it’s like treating a large open wound with a sticky patch; this countermeasure will not solve the root of the problemand NASA is well aware of that.
Antiques that it is high time to put away
The concern is that these combinations are genuine antiques. The overall design of these EMUs dates back to 1983, almost 50 years ago! These combinations were certainly updated in 2002, but the conclusion remains the same. NASA desperately needs a wardrobe refresh. And when you include these dysfunctions in the equation, it even starts to look like an absolute emergency. “The plan is to continue using these EMUs until 2028; but it is becoming more and more apparent that their effective life is limited”Admitted a NASA report published in January.
NASA has already been working on this for several years. She has already presented her plans for new generation of wetsuits, christened xEMU. She has even more impressive long-term plans. For example, the agency unveiled a scanner project that would make it possible to produce bespoke and on-demand suits using 3D printing (see our article).
But one thing is to present enticing concepts, something else is to get started. And so far, these next generation suits are still looking far from seeing the light of day. And with good reason: the design of such technological gemstones is something of a technical challenge.
Huge puzzles and tight timing
For, in essence, a combination of this kind is neither more nor less than one real spaceship in human size and shape. But unlike a structure like the ISS, EMUs need to be flexible and lightweight. Otherwise, they will not allow astronauts to move properly. However, it is extremely difficult to ensure the tightness and thermal insulation of the astronauts while maintaining the mobility of these skillfully articulated parts.
These technical limitations put significant pressure on NASA. After all, she can hardly imagine sending astronauts back to conquer the Moon in the same equipment as he did at the time; these combinations are not simply not mobile and well equipped enough for Artemis 3. It will be a much more complex mission than those attributed to Armstrong and others.
Deadline, however, is fast approaching. Unlike the xEMU program, which seems to stall when it has already swallowed nearly $ 500 million. It is already for this reason that NASA had announced a first launch of Artemis 3 from 2024 to 2025 (see our article). As it looks, NASA plans to complete its xEMUs by 2025 “as quickly as possible”. A date that already seems too ambitious to be kept out of the program’s track record. The bend promises to be tight …
That is why is not ruled out that the agency will be forced to postpone the deadline once again. Keep in mind that NASA now expects a departure in 2026. A new postponement that follows the delays generated by the legal battles from Blue Origin; the firm Jeff Bezos had crippled the program for several weeks with its claims under the famous “HLS affair”. (see our article)
Too fair for Artemis 3?
To avoid another delay, the Agency will have to accelerate the development of these suits significantly. Otherwise, it will not even have time to test them upstream. She has already made an important decision in this direction. Last year, it launched a tender aimed at the private sector. (see our article). The goal: to find partners who can develop the combination’s subsystems. These will, for example, include temperature and pressure control systems, oxygen recycling, etc.
However, if the program is actually in place, it may also be tempting to subcontract the entire combination. An approach that in any case does not surprisingly seem to please Elon Musk. The billionaire had suggested on Twitter that SpaceX could take care of it. The idea is not so absurd either, as SpaceX is already an integral part of the program. In fact, it is she who will be responsible for building the human landing system. This is the lander that will land the Artemis 3 astronauts on our satellite.
SpaceX could do that if need be
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 10, 2021
But whether NASA outsources production or not, the conclusion remains the same. There is now an urgent need to put the current EMUs in the closet once and for all. And no matter which way you go, it is essential for the agency to get there as quickly as possible. It will therefore be interesting to follow the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry this summer. For although no astronaut has been injured so far, it is, of course, an option that must be ruled out at all costs. For the safety of the astronauts in Artmis 3, but also for those who risk their lives today aboard the ISS.