Safe, affordable pressure suits are a critical, enabling technology for commercial spaceflight. Cost reductions are especially important for suborbital spaceflight, where the ticket prices will be about an order of magnitude lower.
Some progress has been made in this area. Orbital Outfitters and the David Clark Company have produced prototype suits for suborbital spaceflight. A new company, Final Frontier Design, recently unveiled its prototype and even held a successful Kickstarter campaign.
This progress, while promising, is not sufficient. David Clark has a great of experience building pressure suits for NASA and the military, dating all the way back to the Bell X-1, but has never delivered a commercial spacesuit. (The company does have a great deal of experience delivering commercial products in other areas, however, especially its highly successful aviation headsets.) The other companies are startups, with a strong commercial orientation, but have not yet delivered a suit that’s actually flown in space.
A healthy industry needs to have multiplier suppliers for critical components like spacesuits. A single source would lead to monopoly pricing and leave the industry vulnerable to single-point failures due to a natural disaster, product recall, or business failure. Two suppliers are better, but a single failure would still put the industry right back in a monopoly situation. For the long-term health of the industry, at least three viable suppliers are preferable.
Right now, most impartial observers would put the number of proven suppliers at about one and a half.
One way to address this problem is a prize for low-cost spacesuit development.
Some of our staff members came up with the idea for a Low-Cost Spacesuit Challenge and persuaded NASA to back the idea, in 2006. The idea won approval from the highest levels of NASA and the White House Office of Management and Budget, making it into the President’s budget request. The Challenge would have offered a $500,000 prize for the first company to successful build and market a low-cost spacesuit suitable for commercial use. Unfortunately, Congress (specifically the Senate) decided not to provide any funding for Centennial Challenges in the FY2007 budget, and The Low-Cost Spacesuit Challenge died as a result.
Designing the challenge was a bit tricky. The problem is determining whether an entry meets the low-cost goal. Cost is a criterion that’s easy to cheat, if the contest isn’t designed properly. NASA (quite rightly) did not want to get involved in auditing a company’s books to determine how much a suit cost. It needed some sort of proxy which was correlated with cost but easier to measure.
We offered two possible solutions. One was touch labor. Labor is the biggest cost component for most aerospace products, including spacesuits. We propose that NASA’s judges observe the construction process and measure the number of man-hours required to build the suit, starting with raw materials and standard commercially available components. Given standards labor rates, that should provide a fair first-order approximation of the suit cost.
The other solution was for the Challenge to set a target price for a suit and require the prize winner to offer a specified minimum number of suits for sale at that price. That requirement removes any incentive for a competitor to cheat. If competitor brings in an expensive suit as a “ringer,” he will lose more than the value of the prize by selling suits below cost.
NASA chose the second approach. The draft rules, which NASA published in 2006, appear at the bottom of this article.
We still think the Low-Cost Spacesuit Challenge has merit. We hope that NASA or some other organization (DARPA, perhaps, or FAA) decides to revive it. Various members of Congress have expressed public concerns about spaceflight safety, but they haven’t done anything constructive about it. Creating a Low-Cost Spacesuit Challenge to spur the development of safe, low-cost spacesuits would do more for spaceflight safety than any other single action Congress might take.
If we were asked to design a Low-Cost Spacesuit Challenge today, we would probably recommend some changes to the 2006 approach. Back then, NASA planned a “first to complete” competition with the money going to the first company that met the specified goal. That approach made sense in 2006, because no one was sure if we would have even one qualified supplier. Today, the objective is to promote healthy competition and bring down costs. Instead of “first to complete,” it would make sense to have a head-to-head competition, with teams competing to produce the lowest-cost suit. Given this type of competition, it would probably make more sense to use the labor-hours criteria. (We’d probably keep the market-sale requirement, as well, as an extra check against cheating.
Getting government funding for such a prize might be extremely difficult in the present environment. Congress has not looked favorably on Centennial Challenge budget requests for several years now. The focus of the Centennial Challenges program has also changed, subtly, in recent years. It now has an explicit goal to “drive progress in aerospace technology of value to NASA’s missions,” rather than the needs of the nation. It might be easier to find prize funding from a private organization. (X-Prize Foundation? Discovery Channel?)
Low-Cost Space Pressure Suit Challenge – Draft Rules
The Low-Cost Space Pressure Suit Challenge is designed to broaden the industrial base for human space flight and stimulate the development of commercially available space suits for passengers of future commercial space vehicles. Future suits must be designed to be worn by passengers for the duration of a space flight and to protect space passengers in the case of rapid cabin depressurization. The suit should have features that support the wearer’s space flight experience, such as minimizing restrictions to mobility when un-pressurized and allowing the wearer to have their head uncovered when un-pressurized. This competition promotes the development of a suborbital suit that is safe and cost effective for both the passenger and the space flight provider.
The Low-Cost Space Pressure Suit Challenge is a first to complete competition with a purse of $500,000. To win this Challenge, a Team must be the first to demonstrate the ability of their suit to meet design and test requirements, including a depressurization test on an instrumented mannequin in a test chamber. To ensure cost effectiveness of the suit, a Team must sell a certain number of their suits in an open market.
a. Advance Notification Information – In accordance with the Advance Notification Period Terms, Team will:
(1) Provide to Org the location and the start date of the Depressurization Test.
(2) Team must provide to Org detailed documentation (and possible demonstration) of the Suit’s compliance with the Design and Operational Requirements.
(3) Provide to Org a detailed description of the Test Procedure, including data acquisition methods employed to verify and validate the Suit performance in the Depressurization Test, and receive written acceptance of the Test Procedure as an approved method of validation and verification to win the Challenge. If Org does not approve the proposed Test Procedure, Org will identify specific shortcomings and provide this information to the Team. It will then be the responsibility of Team to resubmit a new Test Procedure that addresses the shortcomings of the previous submission as identified by Org.
(4) Notify Org of any known Depressurization Test delays at its earliest opportunity. If, in the opinion of Org, Team provides serial notices of delays for the purpose of gaining competitive advantage, the Team will be required to reinitiate the advance notification process.
b. Advance Notification Period Terms – At least 60 days prior to the Depressurization Test:
(1) Team must be officially registered.
(2) Team will provide Org with all Advance Notification Information.
c. Challenge – The Low-Cost Space Pressure Suit Challenge.
d. Depressurization Test – The test of the Suit on a Mannequin in a vacuum test chamber that will be conducted as follows:
(1) At the start of the test the Suit will be un-pressurized and in the normal flight configuration.
(2) Test Chamber pressure will be decreased from Vehicle Ambient Conditions to Vacuum in 3 seconds
e. Design and Operational Requirements – The Suit must meet the following requirements:
(1) The Suit must be designed to be worn by the Wearer during the full nominal Flight Profile.
(2) In an emergency situation, the Suit must be capable of operating in an un-pressurized Vehicle cabin while In-flight.
(3) Suit size, with options or adjustments that are available from the Team, must fit Wearers varying in size from a 5% American Female to 95% American Male.
(4) When un-pressurized, the Suit will not substantially restrict Wearer mobility and visibility.
(5) The un-pressurized Suit shall minimize Wearer heat/cold stress during the nominal Flight Profile. The Wearer’s modeled body core temperature must not vary by more than +/- 1 deg C from its pre-suited value.
(6) In an emergency, when the Suit is pressurized, the Wearer’s modeled core temperature shall not increase by more than 2 deg C with a resting metabolic rate.
(7) In the case of rapid Vehicle depressurization, the Suit must be designed to pressurize to a minimum of 9 psia (62.05 kPa) within 3 seconds.
(8) When pressurized, the Suit must maintain its basic un-pressurized size and shape to enable the Wearer to be restrained in a safe position for reentry or rescue.
(9) When pressurized, the Suit must have sufficient mobility so that Wearers can move to their designated safe position and secure themselves as required for reentry.
(10) The external Suit material must meet federal regulations and industry standards for flammability in relevant environments.
f. Flight Profile – The following flight phases are assumed for the purpose of this Challenge.
(1) Pre-Flight: Suited pre-launch activities that last 90 minutes.
(2) In-flight: 60 minutes launch-to-landing, to a minimum altitude of 62.12 miles (100 kilometers).
(3) Post-Flight: Suited post-landing activities that last 60 minutes.
g. Mannequin – A physical, nonhuman model of a human used to test the Suit.
h. Market Test Success Criteria- To ensure the commercial viability and cost effectiveness of the Suit a Team must sell at least ten (10) of the Suits in an Open Market. In the case of a lease, the lessee must fly at least ten (10) of the Suits.
i. Open Market – A market in which the product is widely accessible to all consumers at the same price.
j. Org – Organization that is administering the Challenge.
k. Suit – The Space Pressure Suit provided by the Team to be submitted to the Depressurization and Market Tests.
l. Test Procedure – The facilities, equipment, data acquisition instruments, procedures, conditions, etc., which will be used in the Depressurization Test.
m. Vacuum – The environment that the Suit experiences at depressurization, which is equivalent to an atmospheric pressure at an altitude of at least 60,000 feet (18,288 meters) mean sea level at standard atmospheric conditions.
n. Vehicle – A spacecraft that transports humans.
o. Vehicle Ambient Conditions – The Suit test environment that simulates a Vehicle with a pressure of no less than 9 psia (62.05 kPa) with no less than 3.06 psia (21.0 kPa) partial pressure O2.
p. Wearer – An individual wearing the Suit.
a. Technical specifications not already covered in this Agreement about the Suit, the Depressurization Test, and any other Challenge details will be provided by Org to the Team at the time of registration. These technical specifications may be subject to future updates by Org at its sole discretion.
b. Before the Depressurization Test, Team shall comply with the Advance Notification Period Terms.
c. For the Depressurization Test, Team shall provide or make arrangements for the use of the Suit and all the other necessary test facilities, equipment, fluids, and consumables that will prove the performance of their Suit.
d. The Suit must successfully complete the Depressurization Test by accomplishing the following:
(1) The Suit must pressurize to 9 psia (62.05 kPa) within 3 seconds of the test chamber achieving Vacuum.
(2) The Suit must maintain a safe level of pressurization for at least 1 hour in Vacuum conditions, without any uncontrolled leaks.
e. The Team must satisfy the Market Test Success Criteria.
f. The first Team that satisfies all rule requirements will win a prize of five hundred thousand U.S. dollars (500,000 USD).
g. The Challenge is open until November 1, 2010.
Questions for Consideration by Respondent
- Are any of the definitions given missing, over-specifying, or incorrectly specifying important qualitative and quantitative parameters? (e.g., pressures are inappropriate, etc.) If so, what should the proper parameter specification be and why?
- Are there any logistical or practical situations that have been overlooked? (E.g., considerations of safety, validation, operation of the competition event, etc.) If so, what situation has been overlooked and how should it be handled?
- Is the prize purse adequately sized? What is the rationale?
- Are there alternative ideas for conducting the competition, or scoring and awarding the prizes for the competition? If so, what are your proposed ideas and why?