NASA last week gave Oceaneering International Inc. of Houston a contract worth up to $745.9 million to design, develop and produce a new spacesuit for orbital and lunar operations.

Subcontractors are Air-Lock Inc. of Milford, Conn., David Clark Co. of Worcester, Mass., Cimarron Software Services Inc. of Houston, Harris Corp. of Palm Bay, Fla., Honeywell [HON, Paragon Space Development Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., and United Space Alliance of Houston. USA is a joint venture of Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT].

NASA is planning to return to the moon about 2020, which may be after Chinese taikonauts already have landed there. By then, India and Japan also may have manned lunar missions.

That NASA spacesuit contract is divided into three high-dollar amounts.

First, the cost-plus-award-fee spacesuit contract includes a basic performance period from this month to September 2014, worth $183.8 million. During the performance period, Oceaneering and its subcontractors will design, develop, test, and evaluate work, and will make, assemble and execute the first flight of suit components needed for astronauts aboard the Orion crew exploration vehicle, the next-generation U.S. spaceship. The basic contract also includes initial work on the suit design needed for the lunar surface.

Then there are two options that could more than quadruple the total contract amount.

In Option 1, Oceaneering will design, develop, test and evaluate suit components for lunar activities. This option runs from October 2010 through September 2018, under a cost- plus-award fee structure with a total value of $302.1 million.

In Option 2, the company will produce, process and sustain engineering under a cost-plus-award fee or a firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract structure with a maximum value of $260 million, depending on hardware requirements. Option 2 would begin at the end of the basic performance period in October 2014, and would continue through September 2018.

The spacesuit development contract is tailored around NASA spaceship capabilities, or lack thereof.

From October 2010, when the space shuttle fleet has been ordered to retire, to March 2015, NASA will have no manned space capability, and instead will have to hitch-hike, getting rides for U.S. astronauts on Russian Soyuz space vehicles or, less likely, on commercial spaceships to be developed by U.S. companies.

From 2015 onward, NASA will use the next-generation U.S. manned spaceship, Orion, which would be lifted into orbit by the Ares rocket. Lockheed is developing Orion, while different parts of the rocket involve companies including Boeing, Alliant Techsystems Inc. [ATK] and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies [UTX].

The first of the new suits would be ready for the initial Orion manned flights in 2015.

“The award of the spacesuit contract completes the spaceflight hardware requirements for the Constellation Program’s first human flight in 2015,” said Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Contracts for the Orion crew capsule and the Ares I rocket were awarded during the past two years.

“I am excited about the new partnership between NASA and Oceaneering,” said Glenn Lutz, project manager for the spacesuit system at Johnson. “Now it is time for our spacesuit team to begin the journey together that ultimately will put new sets of boot prints on the moon.”

There will be two versions of the new suit, including one specifically created for moonwalking. People on the lunar surface will weigh something, though just 1/16th of what they weigh on Earth. The lunar spacesuit version therefore will be more flexible than the current spacesuits that are designed for floating in the near-zero-gravity of orbital space, such as during spacewalks to assemble the International Space Station.

Suits and support systems will be needed for as many as four astronauts on moon voyages and as many as six space station travelers. For short trips to the moon, the suit design will support a week’s worth of moon walks. The system also must be designed to support a significant number of moon walks during potential six-month lunar outpost expeditions. In addition, the spacesuit and support systems will provide contingency spacewalk capability and protection against the launch and landing environment, such as spacecraft cabin leaks.