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New Lunar Spacesuits to Set NASA Back $3.5 Billion

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Nobody would have known if I had touched Neil Armstrong’s moon-walking suit back in 2018. I wasn’t supposed to touch it—indeed, I was forbidden to touch it—but boy, I could have.

I was in the restoration lab at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy extension outside of Washington, D.C., and the suit was being mounted on a new mannequin-like armature that would help support and preserve it for display in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing the following year. At one moment, I was left alone—just the suit and me in the middle of the room—and I knelt down to examine the boots that had taken those celebrated small steps half a century earlier. The temptation to reach out and graze one of them with a finger was overwhelming, but I couldn’t do it. The suit had the feel of a religious artifact; touching it felt like a desecration.

Twelve such suits that were used by moonwalkers are at large around the world, and soon there will be more—not in museums, but in actual service during spacewalks outside of the International Space Station (ISS) as well as on the moon, and eventually Mars. This week, as NASA and others report, the space agency awarded contracts worth a maximum combined $3.5 billion to Houston-based Axiom Aerospace and North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace to compete to develop the next generation of so called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs)—NASA-speak for spacesuits. One or both companies could produce suits that meet NASA’s approval and go into service. Either way, the contracts come just in time (or by some measures, years too late).

The suits currently used for spacewalks aboard the ISS are as old as the station itself—which is to say more than two decades—and they’re showing signs of dangerous wear. In March, for instance, there was a small water leak in one suit during a spacewalk that could have threatened astronaut Matthias Maurer with drowning in space, as almost happened to Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano in 2013 when a more serious leak caused his helmet to fill partway with water.

The new suits will weigh 158 kg (350 lbs) on Earth—but nothing at all in the zero-G environment outside the space station, and 26 kg (just over 57 lbs.) on the surface of the moon. They will likely come in two versions. The lunar variety will be equipped with a more flexible design that will facilitate walking, and the inevitable falling and getting back up that are required to get about on the moon. The type used on spacewalks outside the ISS will not require the same flexibility.

“The requirements set for a low-Earth-orbit suit on space station and a suit on the lunar surface [are] not significantly different, particularly for the life support system,” Lara Kearney, manager of the spacesuit program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center told Spaceflight Now. “The differences really come in the pressure garment [the innermost layer of the suit]—the difference in being in zero gravity on space station versus having to walk on the moon, where you need all of the mobility.”

Any suit that will be worn on the moon also has to be more rugged than a spacewalking suit, to resist damage from the powder-fine, abrasive dust that covers the lunar surface. That’s especially so since 21st century explorers will be spending far more time on the moon than the maximum three days the Apollo crews spent.

NASA is laying out the seed money for the suits, but as with so much else in the increasingly privatized space sector, it will not own them. Rather, it will be for Axiom and Collins to design them, build them, and then lease them to the space agency, and any other paying customers with eyes on spacewalking or reaching other worlds. The next great step on the surface of the moon will, in a sense, be taken in a rented tux. As for when that will actually happen, NASA says the big moment could occur as early as 2025.

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can sign up here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com