These Spacesuits are for Astronauts – and maybe Mars too

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Sooner or later, humans will set foot on the moon again—perhaps by the middle of this decade if NASA’s Artemis program proceeds as planned. Beyond that, private or public crewed missions to Mars in 2030s and 2040s are no longer science fiction. What will the astronauts wear when they step on other planets? NASA has had to overcome many obstacles, including the acquisition of futuristic Spacecraft and giant rockets for Artemis. However, its efforts to develop new spacesuits for the Moon have been equally difficult. The space agency has spent approximately $2.5 billion since 2007. $420 MillionOn new suit designs, but not actually fielding any. Last month, NASA succeeded after many failed attempts. AnnouncedIt has decided to outsource the work, and has chosen two companies to create the next generation haute couture for the high frontier.

Those companies—Axiom Space in Texas and Collins Aerospace in North Carolina—will each independently develop new spacesuits as part of NASA’s Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract. NASA has set aside $3.5 billion for this work through 2034 and plans to use the suits to purchase their suits from the two companies. This service will enable both companies to manufacture and sell additional suits for non-NASA missions. After demonstrations in Earth orbit of the suits, they will be used to launch the first Artemis landing, currently scheduled for 2025. Artemis III will be a mission that will send two astronauts to the lunar surface, one man and one women. Whichever company isn’t chosen for that first landing will instead supply suits for later Artemis missions.

“This is a historic day for us,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in a press conference announcing the award on June 1. “History will be made with these suits when we get to the moon.”

Troubled Development

NASA issued a 2021 call for spacesuit proposals. The existing Extravehicular Mo Unit (EMU), which NASA used for the International Space Station (ISS), was too rigid and bulky for lunar-surface explorations. SpaceX, Blue Origin and more than 40 other companies expressed interest. Collins and Axiom are the only ones that matterSubmitted completed proposals before the December 2021 deadline. This is a Source selection statement released later in June, NASA gave high ratings to both Axiom’s proposed suit, called the AxEMU, and the currently unnamed suit proposed by Collins.

This public-private partnership allows both suit manufacturers and space agency to offer their services to anyone who visits private space stations, such as the one Axiom is currently building. “Axiom will use the AxEMU to support all of our customers,” says Mark Greeley, Axiom’s xEVAS Program Manager. “The AxEMU is capable of supporting [spacewalks] in any environment our customers desire,” he says. Collins has plans for the same. “We don’t want this just to be a bespoke design for NASA,” says Dan Burbank, senior tech fellow at Collins and a former astronaut. “This should be a commercially appropriate suit that will meet the needs of private astronauts as well.”

A company facility is used to test the mobility of employees using a prototype Collins Aerospace spacesuit. Credit: Collins Aerospace

This stage was not easy. NASA’s Z-1 spacesuit prototype was unveiled in 2012. a green-and-white designIt could have inspired future moonwalkers to be like Buzz Lightyear. Later it was. Redesigned as Z-2, but development stalled. In 2019 NASA presented its attempt intended for the Artemis missions, dubbed the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), but an audit by the agency’s Office of Inspector General found the suits Would not be available for the Artemis landingsIt cited ongoing technical and cost problems as well as lingering concerns. “There was concern that this was a never-ending and unsustainable process,” says Cathleen Lewis, a space historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. That doesn’t mean NASA’s in-house spacesuit pursuits will go to waste—both Axiom and Collins will have access to all of that previous work. “They could decide how much of NASA’s designs they wanted to use,” says Lara Kearney, manager of the Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The exact designs of the two companies’ spacesuits are still under wraps. They had to both show that their suits could meet the requirements of the selection process. NASA has set about 80 requirements, however. “We then left it open to them to decide what their design looked like,” Kearney says. These requirements reflect the Artemis missions’ unique objectives and the difference they intend to make from the Apollo missions of 1960s/70s. Artemis astronauts will spend longer on the moon surface than their predecessors and explore more locations, including darkened craters that may contain water ice. Those aspirations demand more mobility than the awkward waddling and clambering provided by the Apollo program’s suits and more adaptability, too: instead of serving an all-male (and all-white) cadre of moonwalkers, the new suits must meet the needs of NASA’s far more diverse modern astronaut corps. “We have to think about diversity,” says Amy Foster, a space historian at the University of Central Florida. “I don’t want anybody being cut out of the opportunity to fly on Artemis because their body type doesn’t fit a suit.”

Flexible and built to last

One of the requirements is that the suits allow at least six lunar surface excursions per mission. One will be conducted per day and last no more than eight hours. The suits must be accessible by astronauts without assistance. It must also be possible to exit and enter the suits with no assistance.

Collins and Axiom are both designing suits that can be rear-entry. These new suits could be attached externally, to a NASA-prototyped, NASA-designed airlock, called a suit port. “You could literally back into a hatch, bond the outer portion of your [suit] to this structure and then open the hatch,” Burbank says. This reduces the risk of dangerous lunar regolith (or moon dust) being tracked back in. Using a suit port “eliminates the regolith hazard,” Burbank says. “None of the exterior of the suit sees the interior of the spacecraft.”

Illustration of Axiom Space’s Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) spacesuit, which the company is currently developing in Houston, Texas. Credit: Axiom Space

Reflecting in part NASA’s objective for Artemis to send the first people of color and the first women to the moon, the new suits must, in a sense, also be “one-size-fits-all”—capable of interchangeable use across multiple missions by a diverse group of astronauts with a wide range of physiques. The suit must be able to fit 90 percent of the male or female population. This includes people as short as 4’10” (1.5m) and taller than 6’4″ (1.9m) with a weight between 94 to 234, 42 to 110 kilograms. “NASA tried to do an all-women spacewalk [in 2019] and they had to keep postponing it because they didn’t have the right-sized suits,” says Michael Lye, a spacesuit designer at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The new suits by Axiom and Collins will fit a much wider variety.” How both companies plan to meet this requirement is currently undisclosed.

Artemis’ main objective is to gather as many samples as possible for further study. These suits should have accessories, such as hammers and rakes. The suits are designed to be very maneuverable, with a movable body and joints to allow astronauts to glide more easily across the lunar terrain. “During the Apollo days, there was no ability to allow your hips to move counter to your shoulders,” Burbank says. “You literally could not take your hips out of alignment with your shoulders. You can do that with this spacesuit.” The suits will also have a lower mass than Apollo-era designs, making them easier to use for extended periods. “I’ve done push-ups in the new suit,” Burbank says. “That would be unimaginable in the existing suits we have right now.”

Uncharted Waters

NASA has many other high standards for suits to meet, some of which are unprecedented. They cannot make the astronauts hear sounds higher than 115 decibels. This is similar to the sound made by a leaf blower. They must be strong enough that the probability of micrometeoroids striking the exteriors is reduced to one in 2,500. The suits should be inspired by the unfurling ceremony of American Stars and Stripes each set of Apollo moonwalkers, and the difficulty of drilling poles into lunar terrain. And stomach-churningly, the suits must be able to somehow clear up to half a liter of vomit from a moonwalker’s eyes, nose and mouth in the event that they regurgitate inside their helmet.

Illustration of an astronaut dressed in a Collins Aerospace spacesuit, on the lunar surface. Credit: Collins Aerospace

The suits must also remain functional after being left on the lunar surface—initially for 210 days as per NASA’s requirements but eventually for as long as three years. This will allow astronauts to return to previous landing sites to reuse the suits they have left, rather than bringing their own. “Depending on the landing sites, we could be able to go and collect and reuse them,” Kearney says. Collins and Axiom both are looking at other technologies, such as digital heads up displays inside the helmet. “The vision we have is to display information to the crewmember about the health of the suit, health of themselves and [crewmates], path to their rover, all those kinds of things,” Burbank says. “You could have the ability to interweave infrared imagery as well.”

Most importantly, suits should be made for bold new eras in lunar exploration. The Apollo missions conservatively focused on the sunlight-bathed equatorial regions of the near side of the moon, but Artemis missions will venture into more daunting locales at the moon’s south pole. Here astronauts may explore some of the moon’s permanently shadowed regions (PSRs)—craters angled in such a way that The sun never reaches its depths. Inside, temperatures can plunge to –400 degrees Fahrenheit (–240 degrees Celsius), twice as cold as the lowest surface temperatures found elsewhere on the moon during its two-week-long lunar night. PSRs could potentially be used to access water or rocket fuel. This is based on observations from lunar orbit. NASA required that the suits be able to operate in these freezing locations for at least 2 hours. This will allow astronauts to prospect in those areas.

“There’s hundreds of millions of tons of water ice buried in relatively shallow depths at the south pole,” Burbank says. “Water for human presence on the moon is essential. So you’re going to need spacesuits to actually do the resource extraction.”

These clothes may be worn by astronauts on the moon as well. Per NASA’s instructions, both are being designed with future modifications for eventual missions to Mars in mind. “The AxEMU is heavily architected to support Martian [extravehicular activities],” Greeley says, noting that while “some development remains,” the company is investigating how to cope with that planet’s tenuous atmosphere and its more substantial gravitational field. First up, though, will be the frenzied-but-methodical sprint to prepare the suits’ lunar variants for that first, long-awaited Artemis moon landing. Development delays with the requisite rockets may make that notional 2025 deadline slip, of course—which could be for the best because readying such ambitious suits in such a short time frame seems challenging, to say the least. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” Lewis says. However, humans should have shiny new clothes to wear when they return to the moon, including a vomit-removal system.

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