United Launch Alliance -- the Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) joint venture responsible for launching most U.S. government space missions -- has a big plan for space. Over the next 30 years, says ULA, America will put dozens, scores, even hundreds of explorers into the region bounded by Earth and its Moon, to live and work there long-term. ULA calls the project its "Cislunar 1000 Vision" to put 1,000 astronauts in orbit.
And now we know what they'll wear when they get there.
Have spacesuit, will travel
Last week, NASA announced that Boeing had designed a new spacesuit for astronauts traveling aboard its new CST-100 "Starliner" spacecraft, which is due to begin flying to the International Space Station in late 2018. Described as "light," "flexible and comfortable," and "tailored for each astronaut," Boeing's new Starliner suit "meets NASA requirements for safety and functionality." It features touchscreen-sensitive gloves to facilitate operating touchscreen controls. And it's a unibody suit, with the helmet and visor -- and even the shoes -- all part of one integrated garment that weighs about 20 pounds total, a 33% reduction in weight from NASA's current spacesuits.
Boeing's new Starliner suit is not designed for extravehicular work in a vacuum, but it "can be pressurized in an emergency."
What it means for investors
Fixing a price on a high tech spacesuit is not the easiest thing in the world (or off it), which makes valuing the revenue opportunity that the Starliner suit affords to Boeing a bit tricky.
We know that in June 2008 NASA awarded Oceaneering International (NYSE:OII) a $745 million contract to design a new spacesuit, beating out incumbent supplier Hamilton Sundstrand, which is still a unit of United Technologies (NYSE:UTX). That contract, however, dealt with extravehicular spacesuits, which, because they are designed to operate in a vacuum, are essentially man-sized spacecraft themselves -- priced at anywhere from $2 million to $15 million per unit. In contrast, the kind of intra-vehicular suits Boeing has designed for Starliner astronauts might cost $200,000 or less.
Even times 1,000 spacesuits, that still works out to less than $200 million in potential revenue for Boeing -- and remember, right now NASA is still sending astronauts into orbit only three at a time. NASA won't need to order 1,000 suits for another 30 years, even if the Cislunar 1000 Vision does become reality.
What it really means for investors
So why do we care about NASA approving Boeing's spacesuits? Because they're a sine qua non for Boeing making more money on other things in space, and because the easier Boeing makes it for people to live and work in space, the more likely people will want to go there.
The 33% decrease in weight and increased functionality offered by the Starliner suits make space just that much easier to access. It makes it that much more likely that Boeing and Lockheed will in fact be able to help put 1,000 or more astronauts in orbit over the next 30 years -- and will get a chance to build (and sell) the rockets and spaceships to get them there, and the space habitats, space taxis, and space gas trucks needed to support them when they arrive.
Not to beat a dead horse here, but if Boeing wants to "travel" very far in space, first it must "have spacesuit."
And now it does.
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