In space, moon suits are the pinnacle of fashion, and NASA officials praised Wednesday what astronauts will wear when they set foot on the moon in the coming years.
“We are developing a new generation of spacesuits,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert T. Cabana said during an event to unveil the new suit in Houston.
The latest in lunar spacesuits — black with orange and blue highlights — comes from Axiom Space in Houston.
By returning to this private enterprise, NASA is once again relying on new commercial space companies that can build key components quickly and cheaply.
Elon Musk’s company SpaceX follows the same template NASA used to get astronauts to the International Space Station and the lunar surface where the Axiom suits were designed.
The moon suit is a key component needed for the Artemis program, which will send astronauts back to the moon, as NASA faces increased competition from China’s growing aerospace industry in space and on the moon. The Axiom suits will be worn during the project’s first lunar landing mission, Artemis III, scheduled for 2025.
During the unveiling Wednesday on a stage at Space Center Houston, the suit’s chief engineer, James Stein, showed how he could easily squat down and move around the lunar gear. The large clear bubble around the head provides wide vision and illumination, which will be important when astronauts step into the shadow craters near the moon’s south pole, where NASA hopes to study the water ice at the bottom of the cold, shadow craters. It also has a mount for a high definition camera.
Astronauts get in and out of the spacesuit through a hatch in the back.
“You put your feet in, you put your hands in, and then you’re in some kind of shiny suit,” said Russell Ralston, associate program manager for extra-vehicular operations at Axiom Space. “Then we’ll close the hatch.”
On the back is a backpack-like contraption with a life support system. “You can think of it as a really fancy scuba tank and air-conditioner, rolled into one,” says Mr. Ralston said.
But the prototype shown on Wednesday wasn’t exactly going to the moon. For one thing, real suits are white instead of dark, reflecting heat instead of absorbing sunlight. Additionally, the current outer covering prevents internal parts from rubbing or damaging during ground testing. For the Moon, there would be an outer layer of insulation to protect the astronaut from extreme temperatures, radiation and dust.
Axiom is headed by Michael Saffredini, who previously served as NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station. The company primarily focuses on low-Earth orbit, sending private astronauts to the ISS and building a private module to add to the space station. A variant of the moon suit may be used on the future Axiom private space station for spacewalks.
Outsourcing the development of spacesuits is a major course correction for NASA, which has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing its own suit called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. The xEMU suits were intended to replace the aging suits used for upcoming lunar missions and spacewalks on the International Space Station.
“We haven’t had a new suit since the suits we designed for the space shuttle, which are currently in use on the space station,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the home of NASA astronauts. . “So for 40 years we’ve been using the same suit based on that technology.”
In 2019, NASA officials excitedly showed off a prototype of the xEMU in patriotic red, white, and blue, detailing how it would provide greater flexibility for walking, bending, and twisting.
“You remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — they bunny-hopped on the surface of the moon,” then-NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the 2019 event. “Well, now we’re actually going to walk on the surface of the moon, which is a lot different than our suits in the past.”
But a NASA inspector general’s audit in August 2021 concluded that NASA spacesuits won’t be ready until April 2025 at the earliest. By the time the audit was published, NASA was already soliciting ideas from the space industry.
In June last year, NASA selected two companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to develop NASA’s future spacesuits for the Moon and the ISS awards will be worth $3.5 billion to the companies by 2034. Only Axiom and Collins submitted completed bids for the contract.
In September, Axiom won the first tranche: $228 million for the development of the Moon Suit.
NASA provided the requirements for the lunar suit to access NASA’s work and expertise with previous spacesuits, including the xEMU. Axiom will retain ownership of the suits, even if they are used by NASA astronauts.
“Think of it like a rental car,” said Laura Kearney, the NASA manager who oversees the spacesuit program. “So Axiom will provide the hardware for both the training and the flight. They’ll bring that hardware in, and we’ll have NASA use it and run it on the surface of the moon for our moonwalk.”
Axiom officials said that half of their design is based on xEMU. It includes boots, helmet bubble and upper torso. “NASA put a tremendous amount of effort into designing that rigid upper torso,” Mr. Ralston said. “We’ve tweaked a couple of small details, but for the most part it’s a direct transfer.”
Axiom adds design innovation to professionals in the automotive, oil and gas, and theater industries. The pressure suit — the part that keeps air from leaking into space — and the gloves are two examples of components designed by Axiom engineers, said Mark Greeley, project manager for extravehicular operations at Axiom.
The new suits fit more people than current spacesuits.
“We have different sized components that we can swap out — medium, large and small, if you will — for different components,” Mr. Ralston said. “But in each of those sizes, we adapt the suit to what someone needs — their leg length or their arm length or things like that.”
NASA maintains that it is on track to land on the moon by 2025. The Biden administration is asking for more than $27 billion for NASA next year, a 7 percent increase, and a significant boost to Artemis.
The first Artemis mission, Artemis I, launched uncrewed in November, testing the Orion capsule that would carry astronauts to lunar orbit and return to Earth. The mission was successful, though not perfect. Orion’s heat shield worked well enough to protect the spacecraft during re-entry into the atmosphere, but not as designed.
“We had more release of burnt material during re-entry before we landed than we expected,” Howard Hu, manager of NASA’s Orion program, 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. The crew will stay in the capsule and will not need moon suits. NASA plans to announce the Artemis II crew on April 3.
At least one of the two astronauts to walk on the moon during Artemis III will be a woman, NASA said.
“When that first woman stepped onto the surface of the Moon aboard Artemis III,” NASA Associate Administrator Mr. “He’s going to wear an Axiom spacesuit,” Cabana said Wednesday.