Collins Aerospace to make International Space Station suits

Collins Aerospace will build spacesuits for the International Space Station, meaning two organizations with Houston ties could protect astronauts as they float above Earth or walk on the moon.

NASA announced Thursday that Charlotte, NC-based Collins Aerospace, which recently built a new campus at the Houston Spaceport, will develop and test spacesuits that could replace the 40-year-old technology astronauts currently wear when exiting the station.

The agency previously selected Houston-based Axiom Space, which is also building a campus at the Houston Spaceport, to design suits for moonwalking astronauts on NASA’s Artemis III mission. Both of these initial technology demonstrations are part of a contract announced in June identifying the two companies that would compete for spacesuit missions.

“They will both still compete for long-term services at the moon and on the International Space Station,” said Chris Hansen, NASA’s deputy program manager overseeing spacesuits and rovers at the Johnson Space Center. “This is more about creating competition and about getting multiple companies working on solving a very complicated problem for us.”

Collins’ spacesuit has more than 18,000 parts. Its interior volume is the size of a small refrigerator, and it will provide astronauts with oxygen, carbon dioxide removal, electrical power, ventilation, temperature control and communications. The suit is lighter and smaller to improve astronaut efficiency, range of motion and comfort. It’s designed to fit almost any body type, and it can be modified as missions change.

Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies business, has a long legacy in designing astronauts’ outerwear. It previously helped build spacesuits for Apollo, space shuttle and International Space Station astronauts.

NASA owned the spacesuits for those programs. This time, NASA will rent suits that are owned by Collins Aerospace and Axiom Space. As part of the public-private partnership, NASA provided a reference spacesuit to guide the companies’ designs and is providing upfront funding.

Axiom Space is receiving $228.5 million to test its suits during the Artemis III mission that’s slated to return astronauts to the moon in 2025 (the company must first test them on Earth in a space-like environment, such as a vacuum chamber).

Collins Aerospace is receiving $97.2 million to test its spacesuits in a simulated space environment by January 2024, and then NASA could provide additional funding to test Collins’ suit outside the space station by April 2026.

Ultimately, NASA wants to be one of many spacewalking customers.

“One of our goals here was to create an economy,” Hansen said. “So it’s really exciting for us to be setting up that infrastructure.”

Spacesuits are very complex. They’re essentially human-shaped spacecraft that must protect astronauts in the vacuum of space.

“We’re prepared to continue keeping astronauts safe, connected and ready – no matter the mission,” Dave McClure, Collins Aerospace vice president and general manager of Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Space Solutions, said in a news release.

Collins expected to do much of his spacesuit assembly, maintenance and testing at his new Houston Spaceport location. Axiom Space will also be building its spacesuits locally.

“It’s a big benefit, I think, to the Houston area economically,” Hansen said. “Having them located here at the Johnson Space Center, it’s really helpful to us because it’s where our astronauts are at and it’s where we do a lot of the training.”