In space, lunar suits are all the rage, and NASA officials on Wednesday hailed what astronauts will wear when they land on the moon in years to come.
“We are developing a space suit for a new generation,” Robert D. Cabana, NASA associate administrator, said during an event in Houston to introduce the new suit.
The latest in lunar spacewear, black with orange and blue highlights, comes from Axiom Space in Houston.
By turning to this private company, NASA is once again relying on commercial space startups to provide key components faster and cheaper than it could develop itself.
The approach follows the template NASA used when hiring Elon Musk’s SpaceX company to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station and onto the lunar surface on the mission for which the Axiom suits were designed.
The lunar suit is a key component required for the Artemis program, which will send astronauts back to the moon as NASA faces increased competition in space and on the moon from China’s burgeoning space sector. The Axiom suits will be used during the Artemis III mission, the program’s first moon landing, which is scheduled for 2025.
During Wednesday’s presentation on a stage at Space Center Houston, James Stein, the suit’s chief engineer, demonstrated the lunar kit, showing how it could squat and move with ease. The large clear bubble around the head provides ample visibility and illumination, which will be important when astronauts enter shadowed craters near the lunar south pole, where NASA hopes to study water ice at the bottom of cold, shadowed craters. It also has a mount for a high definition camera.
Astronauts will enter and exit the spacesuit through a hatch at the rear.
“You would put your feet, your arms, and then you would get into the suit,” said Russell Ralston, deputy director of the extravehicular activity program at Axiom Space. “And then we would close the hatch.”
On the back is a backpack-like contraption that contains the life support system. “You can think of it as a very fancy scuba tank and air conditioner rolled into one,” Ralston said.
But the prototype shown Wednesday wasn’t exactly what will go to the moon. For one, the royal costumes will be white instead of dark, reflecting heat from sunlight rather than absorbing it. Additionally, the current outer shell prevents internal parts from being scratched or damaged during ground testing. For the moon, the suit will have an outer insulation layer to protect the astronaut from extreme temperatures, radiation and dust.
Axiom is led by Michael Suffredini, who previously served as NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station. The company has primarily focused on low-Earth orbit, sending private astronauts to the ISS and building a private module to add to the space station. A variation of the lunar suit could be used on a future Axiom private space station for spacewalks.
Outsourcing spacesuit development is a major course correction for NASA, which spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing its own suit called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. The xEMU suits were to serve both for upcoming missions to the moon and to replace the aging suits used for spacewalks on the International Space Station.
“We haven’t had a new suit since the suits we designed for the space shuttle, and those suits are currently in use on the space station,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the astronauts’ home base. from NASA. . “So for 40 years we’ve been using the same suit based on that technology.”
In 2019, NASA officials enthusiastically showed off a prototype xEMU in patriotic red, white, and blue, describing how it would provide more flexibility to walk, bend, and turn.
“You remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — they bunny-hopped on the surface of the moon,” Jim Bridenstine, then NASA administrator, said at the 2019 event. “Well, now we’re going to be able to walk on the surface of the moon. moon, which is very different from our costumes in the past.”
But an audit by NASA’s inspector general in August 2021 concluded that NASA spacesuits wouldn’t be ready until April 2025 at the earliest. When the audit was published, NASA was already asking the aerospace industry for ideas.
In June of last year, NASA selected two companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to build NASA’s future space suits for the moon and ISS. The prizes would be worth up to $3.5 billion through 2034 for companies. Axiom and Collins were the only companies to submit full bids for the contract.
In September, Axiom won the first installment: $228 million for the development of the lunar suit.
NASA provided the requirements that the lunar suit had to meet, as well as access to NASA’s work and experience with previous spacesuits, including the xEMU. Axiom will retain ownership of the suits even when worn by NASA astronauts.
“Think of it more like a rental car,” said Lara Kearney, the NASA manager who oversees the spacesuit program. “So Axiom will provide the hardware for both training and flight. They will bring that hardware and we, NASA, will use it and operate it on the surface of the moon for our moonwalk.”
Axiom officials said that about half of its design is based on xEMU. That includes the boots, helmet bubble, and upper torso. “NASA put a lot of effort into designing that tough upper torso,” Ralston said. “We’ve tweaked a couple of minor details, but for the most part that’s something that was a direct transfer.”
Axiom turned to experts in the automotive, oil and gas, and theater industries for innovations to add to the design. The pressurized suit, the part that prevents air from leaking into space, and the gloves are two examples of components designed by Axiom engineers, said Mark Greeley, program manager for extravehicular activities at Axiom.
The new suits will also fit more people than current spacesuits.
“We have different sizes of items that we can trade—medium, large, and small, if you will—for different components,” Ralston said. “But then within each of those sizes, we also have adjustability where we can really tailor the suit to someone – their leg length or their arm length or things like that.”
NASA maintains that it remains on track for a moon landing in 2025. The Biden administration is asking for more than $27 billion for NASA next year, an increase of 7 percent, and that includes a sizeable boost for Artemis.
The first Artemis mission, Artemis I, launched without a crew aboard in November, testing the Orion capsule that will carry astronauts into lunar orbit and back to Earth. The mission was a success, though not perfect. Orion’s heat shield worked well enough to protect the spacecraft when it re-entered the atmosphere, but not as well as designed.
“We had more char release during reentry before landing than we expected,” Howard Hu, NASA’s Orion program manager, said during a news conference last week.
The Artemis II mission, scheduled for next year, will carry astronauts for the first time: three Americans and one Canadian. That crew will stay in the capsule and won’t need lunar suits. NASA plans to announce the Artemis II crew on April 3.
NASA has said that at least one of the two astronauts who will walk on the moon during Artemis III will be a woman.
“When that first woman steps on the surface of the moon on Artemis III,” Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator, said Wednesday, “she’ll be wearing an Axiom spacesuit.”