NASA awards Space Act Agreement contract for commercial astronaut jetpack

The US space agency continues to look toward the private sector as it plans for life beyond the International Space Station.
Chris Young
A prototype of the new jetpack.
A prototype of the new jetpack.


NASA has awarded a Space Act Agreement contract to Special Aerospace Services (SAS) to develop a commercial version of its Autonomous Maneuvering Unit (AMU) astronaut jetpack.

The move comes as the US space agency looks ahead to a future without the International Space Station (ISS), in which private companies will build and lift a series of commercial space stations to low Earth orbit.

A new commercial maneuvering unit

A variation of the AMU astronaut jetpack called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), was a key piece of standard equipment aboard NASA's Space Shuttle.

While most of today's spacewalks aboard the ISS are tethered and rely greatly on safety links, NASA spacesuits do include a small thruster pack that would help an astronaut get back to the station in the case of an emergency.

Now, NASA is looking to pass the baton on to private space companies when it comes to LEO operations, with the development of commercial space stations like Nanoracks' Starlab and Blue Origin's Orbital Reef. The ISS is expected to continue operating through 2030, but it will eventually be decommissioned and replaced by several of these smaller private stations.

Part of this push is seeing the US space agency invest in technologies that could be produced in large quantities via the commercial sector.

NASA to provide "expertise, historical data"

That's where Special Aerospace Services comes in. As part of its Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC-2) initiative, NASA awarded the company a Space Act Agreement contract to develop a new version of the AMU that will be used for "civil, commercial, and national security missions", SAS explained in a press statement.

Though SAS hasn't revealed a great deal when it comes to specifications regarding its commercial version of the AMU, the company claims its partnership with NASA will provide invaluable knowledge and expertise based on NASA's own work with its AMU.

NASA awards Space Act Agreement contract for commercial astronaut jetpack
Bruce McCandless using the MMU in February 1984.

NASA, after all, oversaw the very first untethered expedition by an astronaut in history, when Space Shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless used the MMU to float around in space back in February 1984.

"This agreement is critical in providing expertise, historical data, lessons learned, and access to NASA personnel in order for SAS to accelerate our commercial development of the AMU technology," explained Special Aerospace Services chief technical officer and co-founder Tim Bulk.

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