The Obama administration’s announcement that the International Space Station will continue past its 2020 end of operations date raises the prospect for additional work for the Delaware firm that manufactures the space suits used on the orbiting lab.
The Jan. 8 decision, announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and John P. Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will keep the ISS on orbit until at least 2024.
“The International Space Station remains the springboard to our next great leap in exploration,” Bolden said to those who gathered at the Jan. 9 International Space Exploration Forum in Washington, D.C.
“As a convergence of science, technology and human innovation, it is helping us learn what it means to be a spacefaring people by demonstrating new technologies and making research breakthroughs not possible on Earth.”
ILC Dover, of Frederica, has built all of the familiar white suits, formally known as Extravehicular Mobility Units, used on the American side of the ISS, as well as suits used by astronauts in the space shuttle program and, before that, the Apollo lunar landing effort. Members of the Russian cosmonaut corps use Russian-manufactured suits when they venture out of the station.
The announcement was made a good six years before the date the station was to be shut down because of the tremendous amount of lead time needed to plan additional missions, manufacture new components − including replacement parts for the suits – and to continue cooperative agreements with the other countries involved in flying and maintaining the station.
“Until this announcement, NASA was prohibited from spending money on the station beyond 2020,” said ILC Project Manager Phil Spampinato. “This is our ‘get out of jail’ card with respect to planning and cooperation with other countries.”
Even beginning planning six years out is cutting it close, Spampinato said.
“We needed to study when it was time to start placing orders, and now we can start work planning for those orders,” he said.
Constructed from more than a half-dozen modules that contain both laboratories and living space, the first portion of the station was launched in November 1998. In addition, it includes a number of supporting truss assemblies and solar cell panels that supply the station with electricity.
Such a large and complicated system requires continual maintenance, Spampinato said, adding that a good portion of the crew’s time is dedicated to keeping everything running.
That includes making more than 170 spacewalks that have used both ILC’s suits and the Russian suits.
The current suit is made up of several differently sized parts that can be assembled to a central torso that will fit just about any size astronaut, male or female. The space station carries enough parts to assemble four of the suits, which along with the Russian suits are enough for the station’s six-man crew.
Page 2 of 2 - Going outside the space station’s relatively friendly confines is dangerous work, and NASA carefully plans all such excursions. Those that are done to place experiments or to conduct research are thought out weeks or months in advance.
But the suits also have proven their worth in emergency situations, as demonstrated in December when astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins twice ventured outside to replace a failed cooling pump.
‘We have a role’
ILC currently is working from a five-year contract with NASA to provide suits and components for the ISS, and is in the first of five one-year extensions to that contract.
While NASA has not yet made a decision about staying with ILC’s suits as the space station enters its extended lifespan, ILC managers feel the additional time will be good news for the company. The space station’s new lease on life means NASA must evaluate all systems aboard the lab, including the space suits.
“Our end game was 2020,” Spampinato said. “If you go longer than that, you have to consider if things will need to be repaired or replaced. You have to determine if you can extend the life of the articles.”
“If we continue with the EMU, the current suit, then we have a role in manufacturing spares and new hardware,” he said. “We will benefit from that.”
Even though ILC has yet to secure additional contracts assuring the firm will continue to provide space suits and suit components past the end of its current contract in 2020, the decision to extend the life of the space station brings new opportunities for the company.
“It’s really good news in that it’s been extended,” Spampinato said. “Now we need to go and take advantage of that to win contracts that provide jobs.”