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NASA has selected two companies to make spacesuits for its Artemis moon program and future International Space Station (ISS) missions.

Teams led by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace (with ILC Dover as a major contributor) received access to a contract worth up to a total of $3.5 billion to supply spacesuits for future NASA missions through 2034, agency officials announced today (June 1).

Why two contracts were awarded?

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  • $\begingroup$ My guess would be redundancy. This follows the pattern NASA has used elsewhere - two contracts for human spaceflight (SpaceX and Boeing), originally two contracts for the human landing system for Artemis. And I suspect that there are other instances where NASA has awarded multiple contracts for a single project. Still, plus one and I hope someone with actual experience in the field can answer (unlike myself who just watches Scott Manley and plays KSP). $\endgroup$
    – mgarey
    Jun 2, 2022 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ @mgarey: Commercial Cargo is another one (SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and soon SierraSpace). And the Commercial Lunar Payload Services have no fewer than 14 different contractors. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2022 at 7:26

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One of NASA's fundamental principles is Dissimilar Redundancy, meaning, having (at least) two providers that share no critical path.

They do the same thing with all of their commercial partnerships:

So, as you can see, it is actually completely normal that NASA contracts more than one contractor for a specific service, and significantly more than one contractor for a development program. In fact, one could legitimately ask the question, why did NASA only select two contractors?

The "odd couple" in NASA's commercial services are actually the Gateway Logistics Services for cargo resupply of the Lunar Gateway and the Human Landing System. Both of these were awarded solely to SpaceX with Dragon XL and Starship HLS.

And specifically for the HLS, NASA calls out in the Source Selection Statement the fact that the main reason they only selected one contractor is that Congress only gave them enough money for one. (In fact, Congress didn't even give them enough money for one, but SpaceX was by far the cheapest bidder and NASA was able to re-negotiate payment terms with them to fit the budget.)

If it weren't for this financial restriction, NASA very likely would have awarded two contracts, if not all three.

You can see how important Dissimilar Redundancy is, if you consider that:

  • After the SpaceX CRS-7 explosion, Falcon 9 was grounded, but NASA could keep on re-supplying the ISS using Cygnus (plus, there is also the Japanese HTV and the Russian Progress).
  • After the AMOS-6 explosion, Falcon 9 was again grounded.
  • After the Cygnus Orb-3 explosion, Antares was grounded, but Orbital Sciences could continue launching Cygnus missions to the ISS on ULA's Atlas V. This is an example of nested dissimilar redundancy: not only does NASA have two different contractors (soon three) re-supplying the ISS with cargo, but one of them can even use different launch vehicles.
  • Cygnus is launching on the Antares rocket, which is a Ukrainian rocket using Russian engines, both which are currently hard to come by for obvious reasons. Therefore, two Cargo Resupply Missions using Cygnus will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 until the new Antares 330 is ready which no longer uses any Russian or Ukrainian parts. (This shows both the redundancy built into Cygnus by being able to launch on different launchers and the lack of redundancy in the US launch market caused by SpaceX's towering dominance.)
  • Boeing's Starliner program is significantly delayed due to first valve problems, then software problems, then again valve problems.
  • SpaceX's Crew Dragon program was also delayed due to parachute problems, then a valve problem which lead to a spacecraft exploding.

The most obvious example, though is the Space Shuttle, for which NASA had no redundancy, and thus had no capability of launching crew during the grounding of the fleet after the Challenger accident and the Columbia accident, and after the retirement of the fleet.

There is also an interesting pattern in the way NASA awards those contracts: in several of them, NASA chooses an "established player" and a "newSPACE" contender, for example with CRS (Northrop Grumman and SpaceX) and CCP (Boeing and SpaceX). It is also likely they wanted to do the same with the HLS (SpaceX and National Team).

They did the same here: Collins / ILC Dover is an established player, they already built the current ISS suits as well as the Apollo suits. And Axiom is a newSPACE company. What is somewhat interesting is that NASA awarded the contract for developing new suits to Collins only a couple of days after NASA put a stop on ISS spacewalks precisely because of unsolved problems with the current Collins spacesuits.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very nice. A minor correction, with regard to Commercial Orbital Transportation Services: NASA expected the winning bidders to obtain significant outside funding. SpaceX did, but Rocketplane Kistler did not. Proving that the winning bidders had obtained significant outside funding was a spec in the COTS contracts. NASA cancelled the RPK contract because of this, leaving $175m of unspent money. NASA later awarded this to Orbital Sciences. This gave Orbital a leg up on Commercial Resupply Services Phase I, which unsurprisingly went to SpaceX and to Orbital. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2022 at 9:01
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not quite sure whether Axiom is a new space company. It's co-founder and chairman of the board is Kam Ghaffarian, who co-founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies in 1994. SGT went on to become one of NASA's leading old-style cost+ contractors. In the mid 2010s Kam started founding new space companies such as Intuitive Machines and Axiom. He has accelerated the pace since selling SGT. (He and Harold Stinger sold SGT in 2018.) Kam is a serious force to be reckoned with. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2022 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ However, Kam tended to find old space people to head those companies. IM's co-founder, president, and CEO worked his way up the NASA food chain to eventually become Deputy Director of JSC. Axiom's co-founder, president, and CEO worked his way up the NASA food chain to eventually become the International Space Station Program Manager. $\endgroup$ Jun 3, 2022 at 10:04
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! Nice review of the background & history. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2022 at 3:50

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