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Life Support Subsystems

Updated Feb 12, 2024


As a world leader in life support for human spaceflight, Johnson Space Center (JSC) offers a comprehensive range of capabilities in Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) and Crew Survival, Space Suits, and Habitability Systems. Reliable life support systems are critical in human spaceflight to provide astronauts with the necessary environmental conditions, such as oxygen, temperature regulation, and waste management, essential for sustaining life during extended missions in the inhospitable environment of space. Toxicological and other environmental risks are assessed and managed within the context of isolation, continuous exposures, reuse of air and water, limited rescue options, and the need to use highly toxic/biohazardous compounds in payloads, for propulsion, and other purposes. JSC personnel provide research, analysis, development and testing of open and closed-loop technologies needed to sustain long-duration human presence in space. JSC also provides expertise in on-orbit operations, the design of future space vehicle ECLSS systems, and the development, certification and maintenance of ECLSS flight hardware. 

JSC excels in testing and evaluation, integration, prototype development, flight hardware certification and consultation for critical elements such as carbon dioxide removal, oxygen generation, water recovery, and urine stabilization. JSC is a global leader in the design, testing, and implementation of launch and entry suits, ensuring crew survival during critical mission phases. Additionally, our unparalleled experience in space suit technology covers the entire life cycle, from design to operational support. JSC leads in addressing challenges related to crew comfort, waste management, hygiene, galley hardware, and logistics reduction. The Center’s capabilities span problem definition, research, design, prototyping, testing, and operational support, offering unique solutions for space hardware engineering. Join us in pushing the boundaries of space, through innovation in life support systems. We invite our partners to utilize our life support capabilities to ensure their mission success. 

Life Support System Design and Development

Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) 

Overview | NASA JSC Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) team provides research, analysis, development, and testing of open and closed loop technologies needed to sustain a long duration human presence in space. The team provides expertise in on-orbit operations, the design of future space vehicle ECLSS systems, and the development, certification, and maintenance of ECLSS flight hardware. 

Details |

  • JSC Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) flight hardware design, development, testing and evaluation
  • Carbon dioxide removal, reduction, storage, monitoring and transfer 
  • Oxygen generation and separation 
  • Trace contaminant control, monitoring and detection
  • Environment simulation 
  • Water recovery, monitoring, distribution and storage 
  • Water filter packing, testing and analysis 
  • Formulation, production and analysis of ECLSS fluids 
  • Urine collection and stabilization
  • Prototype development 
  • Technology demonstrations 
  • Performance requirements and concept of operations development 
  • Fabrication, assembly and testing 
  • Certification and integration support
  • Pre-flight inspections, checkouts, packing and delivery for launch 
  • General and specialized consultation 

Crew Survival Suit and Equipment 

Overview | The launch and entry suit provides a survivable environment for the crewmember during launch and landing mission phases and emergency survival and escape hardware to aid in emergency events from bailout to search and rescue anywhere on the planet. 

Details |

  • Crew survival suits and equipment design, development, testing, analysis, certification, and failure investigation
  • Launch and entry pressure suits
  • Vehicle seats 
  • Occupant protection systems 
  • Survival radios 
  • Life rafts 
  • Emergency breathing systems
  • Automatic inflation life preservers 
  • Metabolic load physiological limitation studies to determine crewmember heat stress under multiple suit configurations 
  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2) buildup and washout testing and analysis to disperse helmet CO2 and prevent hypercapnia 
  • Occupant protection impact testing 
  • Suit material outgas investigation at vacuum
  • Oxygen flammability assessment for emergency breathing hardware 
  • Multiple crewmember life raft stability studies 

Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Systems 

Overview | JSC personnel have a vast knowledge of the technical challenges associated with space suit technology, including mobility, sizing, life support, ventilation, hydration, and waste management. JSC experience covers the full life cycle, starting from basic design through development, testing, and operational support. 

Details | Space suits are unique in that they are miniature, customized spacecraft. They must provide environmental protection, mobility, and life support to the crewmember during spacewalks. 

  • Space suit design and development 
  • Pressure garment and glove design 
  • Mobility and sizing
  • Helmet and visor design
  • Life support umbilical design
  • Suit maintenance and operations 
  • Portable life support technologies 
  • Thermal control
  • Ventilation 
  • Oxygen systems 
  • Contaminant control 
  • Hydration 
  • Waste control
  • Space suit testing, verification, and training 
  • Suit checkout 
  • Altitude testing 
  • Thermal vacuum testing 
  • Flight crew training
  • System-level engineering insight into the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) hardware operational performance and detailed leadership into anomaly resolution 
  • Real-time mission support for on-orbit activities 
  • Ground training simulations for training and crew extraction from the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and vacuum chamber facilities 
  • Engineering risk-based guidance for management, sustaining and changes of the EMU hardware and forecast for long-term hardware lifecycle usage 

Habitability Systems and Flight Crew Equipment 

Overview | JSC personnel have the unique experience and vast knowledge of the technical challenges associated with metabolic waste management, personal hygiene, crew accommodations, galley hardware, trash management and odor control, logistics reduction and tracking, advanced clothing, housekeeping, tools and diagnostic equipment, restraints and mobility aids and unique stowage solutions. 

Details |

  • Habitability systems and flight crew equipment hardware development
  • Performance requirements and concept of operations development 
  • Prototype development including use of rapid manufacturing and 3D printing
  • Fabrication, assembly, and testing 
  • Technology demonstrations 
  • Certification and integration support 
  • Pre-flight inspections, checkouts, packing and delivery for launch 

Valve Repair and Refurbishment 

Overview | White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) provides fluid component support to its customers through valve refurbishment, repair, and maintenance. Services provided follow the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) National Board Inspection Code (NBIC)/NB-23. 

Details |

  • Component Services workforce: disassembly, cleaning, maintenance, reassembly, refurbishment, manufacture, and testing of pressure relief and pressure safety valves in compliance with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) National Board Inspection Code (NBIC)/NB-23
  • Operations: hardware precision cleaning, component assembly, and component calibration. With a full-service clean room and an American Society of Mechanical Engineers/ National Board Inspection Code (ASME/NBIC) certified Valve Repair (VR) Facility, this organization has extensive cleaning and refurbishing experience with numerous valve configurations, metal types, and elastomerics 
  • Unique VR facility: relief valve repairs and flow tests are performed in an oxygen-clean environment to service ASME code relief devices for use in oxygen systems
  • The Fluid Components Laboratory: services on fluid components and systems, including manual valves, chemical pumps, compressors, vacuum pumps, and flight compressors on the ISS 
  • Refurbish, reverse engineer, repair, and redesign valves for oil, gas, chemical, propellant, and fuel use, as well as for components in liquid oxygen systems 
  • Reassembly and functional testing, cleanliness is maintained using a clean, Class 10,000 environment 
  • Spare and repair parts are manufactured at WSTF to refurbish obsolete expensive valves 

Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels 

Overview | White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) tests and evaluates composite overwrap pressure vessels (COPVs) and components through studying damage tolerance and stress rupture. It also offers leading expertise in both destructive and nondestructive evaluation, training, analysis, and development of life extension protocols for composite structures. 

Details | White Sands Test Facility (WSTF) offers leading expertise in the testing, nondestructive evaluation, training, and analysis of composite structures. WSTF engages in the test and evaluation of structures by performing mechanical damage tests, sustained load testing, material compatibility, and hydraulic and pneumatic burst tests to understand and evaluate environmental effects on pressurized systems. 

Damage Detection Course 

A two-day damage detection course is offered to qualify aerospace visual inspectors of flight composite pressure vessels and provides comprehensive working knowledge of composite overwrap pressure vessel (COPV) technology. The course focuses specifically on mechanical damage, safe life, sustained load, and propellant/fuel exposure effects on pressure vessels built using graphite/epoxy composite filament wound onto metallic liners. 

Life Support System Testing

Thermal-Vacuum Human-Rated Testing 

Overview | Johnson Space Center (JSC) is the world leader in human-rated testing in a simulated space environment, offering human testing in vacuum, thermal– vacuum, and vibration environments. JSC offers a collection of unique knowledge and experience as to what works well within the hostile environment of space and what does not. This knowledge is available to support crewed spacecraft and space system hardware design reviews and flight– like simulation of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) operations in pressures ranging from vacuum to one atmosphere. 

Details |

Human-rated hardware testing in vacuum and thermal–vacuum environments 

  • Space suit development testing 
  • Flight crew training 
  • Environmental control and life support system testing 
  • Metabolic loading to life support systems
  • Parametric testing 
  • Emergency and mobility accommodations of suited crew person 

Human-in-the-loop air revitalization system testing 

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) removal or reduction testing
  • Oxygen (O2) generation testing 
  • Trace contaminant control testing 

Human-rated vibration testing 

  • Thermal analysis, including human thermal modeling 

Vacuum Test Facilities (Altitude Chambers) 

Overview | Johnson Space Center (JSC) provides a wide array of space environment simulation test capabilities. The altitude chambers are used primarily for development, certification, and parametric testing of life support systems for humans in the hostile environment of space. Each altitude chamber is configured for a particular type of testing; however, within the chamber’s capabilities, the chamber complex may be used to perform other types of tests. JSC offers a collection of unique knowledge as to what works well within the harsh environment of space and what does not. Test capability is available for both manned and unmanned test environments. 

Details |

  • Human-rated testing in a vacuum environment
  • Space suit development testing 
  • Flight crew training
  • Environmental control and life support system testing 
  • Metabolic loading to life support systems 
  • Parametric testing 
  • Emergency and mobility accommodations of suited crewmember 
  • Air Revitalization system testing
  • Carbon dioxide removal or reduction 
  • Oxygen generation 
  • Trace contaminant control 
  • Materials and hardware testing in a vacuum environment 

Odor & Offgas Flight Acceptance and Standard Testing (FAST) 

Overview | White Sands Test Facility conducts odor testing and offgas testing. The facilities detect, identify, and quantify all gaseous compounds and odors released from a material or article under human habitable atmospheric conditions. Human evaluation of odors can also be performed. 

Details |

  • Four trained and certified analytical chemists to identify and quantify all offgassed products 

Analytical Capabilities 

  • Two Gas Chromatographs (GC) equipped with Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) detectors and mass spectrometers (MS) for detecting and quantifying offgassed inorganic and organic compounds 
  • One GC equipped with a Flame Ionization Detector (FID) for detecting and quantifying offgassed organic compounds 
  • One GC equipped with a methanizer coupled to a FID for detecting and quantifying carbon monoxide and methane 
  • One GC equipped with a thermal conductivity detector (TCD) for detecting and quantifying hydrogen 
  • Simulated-use testing conducted in two airtight gloveboxes
  • Handling of electrostatic discharge (ESD) components. Class 1 ESD protective workstation available 
  • Test small to very large materials and components. A large array of offgassing chambers to fit most any size material or test article (2 L through 86700 L) are maintained for testing. Our largest offgassing chamber is the CVI® self-heating cylindrical offgassing chamber. This chamber is 1.83 m (6 ft) in diameter and 2.74 m (9 ft) long. This chamber can achieve vacuums as low as 1.33 Pa (1 × 10-2 torr), with a temperature range from ambient ~ 21 to 93°C (70 to 200°F). 
  • Thermal conditioning capabilities range from ~21 to 316 °C (~70 to 600°F). Five thermal conditioning ovens (incorporating multiple temperature measurement systems) are connected to an automatic alarm system to notify personnel of power outages and/or temperature nonconformities. Ovens can handle the entire size range of sample chambers. 
  • Odor Test Panel maintained and tested for odor testing (Test 6). An “Odor Mission” is conducted by five certified odor panel members under the direction of an Odor Panel Test Conductor. These five odor panel members are selected randomly out of a pool of all odor panel members and their sense of smell tested to ensure sensitivity. 
  • On-site state-of-the-art test article/material preparation and analytical laboratories with full sample preparation, measurement, thermal conditioning, and chemical analysis capabilities are maintained.
  • A secure, limited-access storage area for spaceflight items and other high cost/importance items is utilized 
  • Direct test data entry and storage into a secure, laboratory information and tracking system that automatically generates the reports for review and transmittal is maintained 
  • Materials and equipment to handle heavy and bulky articles up to 909 Kg (2000 lb.) (heavier with prior notification), are available. In addition to a full rack, sized to hold test articles in the 3 m (10 ft) by 1.8 m (6 ft) chamber. 

Additional Capabilities

Environmental Chemistry Laboratory 

Overview | The Environmental Chemistry Laboratory (ECL) has extensive experience analyzing environmental samples from crewed spacecraft and interpreting the results to ensure compliance with applicable standards. The ECL has the expertise to develop custom analytical methods to deal with complex sample matrices (wastewaters, preserved urines, urine brines) and to overcome the inherent challenges associated with spacecraft environmental monitoring (limited sample volumes, non-ideal storage conditions, etc.). The lab also works to identify and evaluate new environmental monitoring hardware, establishes monitoring requirements for new crewed spaceflight programs, and provides operational support for on-orbit monitoring and environmental control systems. 

Details |

  • Comprehensive analysis of air, water, and wastewater samples
  • Interpretation of environmental data 
  • Development of custom analytical methods to overcome challenges created by complex matrices, limited sample volume, and unique/non-standard analyses 

Toxicology and Risk Assessment 

Overview | Toxicological and other environmental risks are assessed and managed within the context of isolation, continuous exposures, reuse of air and water, limited rescue options, and the need to use highly toxic/biohazardous compounds in payloads, for propulsion, and other purposes. 

Details |

  • Establish limits for air and water pollutants
  • Spacecraft Maximum Allowable Concentration (SMACs) 
  • Spacecraft Water Exposure Guidelines (SWEGs) 
  • Assess chemical hazards for flight
  • Data interpretation and trend analysis 
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer is photographed during setup of hardware for the Capillary Structures for Exploration Life Support (Capillary Structures) two sorbent demonstrations. The Capillary Structures for Exploration Life Support (Capillary Structures) investigation studies a new method using structures of specific shapes to manage fluid and gas mixtures. The investigation studies water recycling and carbon dioxide removal, benefiting future efforts to design lightweight, more reliable life support systems for future space missions.
The flight demonstration unit of the next-generation 4-bed CO2 Scrubber (4BCO2) is targeted for launch aboard NG16 NET August 1, 2021. Once aboard the space station, this u nit will be mounted in a basic express rack. This four-bed technology is a mainstay for metabolic CO2 removal and crew life support. The new 4-Bed Carbon Dioxide Scrubber, developed, built, and tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is checked out by Kathi Lange, a Bastion Technologies contractor supporting the quality assurance group in Marshall’s Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate, prior to its shipment to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. 
Engineers and technicians at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are testing the spacesuit astronauts will wear in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on trips to deep space. On June 22, 2017, members of the Johnson team participated in a Vacuum Pressure Integrated Suit Test to verify enhancements to the suit will meet test and design standards for the Orion spacecraft. During this test, the suit is connected to life support systems and then air is removed from Johnson’s 11-foot thermal vacuum chamber to evaluate the performance of the suits in conditions similar to a spacecraft. The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure. Part of Batch images transfer from Flickr.
A preflight view taken of the ISS Universal Waste Management System, Unit 1 during EMI/EMC Testing. This technology provides additional waste disposal points to the International Space Station (ISS) and aids in planning for future exploration missions including Deep Space Gateway (DSG). A smaller, more comfortable and more reliable waste-disposal method allows the crew to focus on other activities and enables further exploration in space.