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NASA taps Oceaneering to build spacesuits for moon

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA has turned to a new lead contractor to build spacesuits for its revived lunar exploration program that aims to land astronauts on the moon again by 2020, officials said on Thursday.

Oceaneering International Inc of Houston defeated a bid by Exploration Systems and Technology, a joint venture of current lead spacesuit contractors United Technologies Corp’s Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and ILC Dover of Frederica, Delaware.

The contract, worth up to $745 million, includes design, testing, evaluation and production of two types of spacesuits. One would be worn by astronauts traveling on NASA’s new Orion spaceships and be used for emergency spacewalks, and another for astronauts working on the lunar surface.

NASA expects Oceaneering to have its first suits ready to support the debut flight of Orion with astronauts aboard in 2015.

The current spacesuits used by spacewalking astronauts were designed for floating in weightlessness, not walking on the moon, Glenn Lutz, project manager for the spacesuit system at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told reporters during a telephone call on Thursday.

“They were built for a completely different set of problems to solve,” Lutz said. Astronauts on the moon will need lighter-weight suits that can bend and be easily maneuvered, he added.

NASA plans to end its space shuttle program in 2010 and develop the Orion spaceships that can ferry crews to the International Space Station, which circles about 210 miles (338 km) above Earth, as well as journey to the moon.

Astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972 during NASA’s Apollo 17 mission.

Partnering with Oceaneering are Air-Lock Inc of Milford, Connecticut, David Clark Co of Worcester, Massachusetts, Cimarron Software Services Inc of Houston, Harris Corp of Palm Bay, Florida, Honeywell International Inc of Glendale, Arizona, Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Arizona, and United Space Alliance of Houston.

Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney