April 18, 2024

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NASA and Axiom unveil new spacesuits for the Artemis III moon mission

NASA and Axiom unveil new spacesuits for the Artemis III moon mission

In space, moon suits are the height of fashion, and NASA officials on Wednesday teased what astronauts will wear when they step on the lunar surface in the coming years.

“We’re developing a spacesuit for a new generation,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert DeCabana said during an event in Houston that unveiled the new suit.

The newest lunar space outfit — black with orange and blue accents — comes from Axiom Space in Houston.

By going private, NASA is once again relying on new commercial space companies to supply key components faster and cheaper than they themselves can develop.

This approach follows the model used by NASA in hiring Elon Musk’s SpaceX to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and to the lunar surface for the mission for which the Axiom suits were designed.

The moon suit is a key component required for the Artemis program, which will send astronauts to the moon as NASA faces stiff competition in space and on the moon from China’s burgeoning space sector. The Axiom suits will be worn during the Artemis III mission, the program’s first moon landing, scheduled for 2025.

During the unveiling Wednesday onstage at the Space Center in Houston, James Stein, chief engineer of the suit, demonstrated the lunar equipment, showing how it could easily squat and move around. The large, conspicuous bubble around the head provides a wide view as well as illumination, which will be important when astronauts step into the shadowed craters near the moon’s south pole, where NASA hopes to study water ice at the bottom of the cool, shadowed craters. It also has an HD camera mount.

Astronauts enter and exit the spacesuit through a hatch in the backside.

“You can put your feet in, put your arms in, and then kind of shiver in the suit,” said Russell Ralston, deputy director of EVA program at Axiom Space. “And then we’ll close the hatch.”

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On the back is a backpack-like device that contains a life support system. “You can think of it as a scuba tank and a very fancy air conditioner, kind of rolled into one,” Mr. Ralston said.

But the prototype shown off Wednesday wasn’t exactly what was going to go to the moon. First, the suits will be white instead of dark, reflecting heat from the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them. In addition, the existing outer covering keeps the internal parts from being scratched or damaged during the ground test. 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 Program Manager for the International Space Station. The company has focused primarily on low Earth orbit, sending private astronauts to the International Space Station and building a private module to add to the space station. A variety of moonsuits can be used on Axiom’s future private spacewalk space station.

Outsourcing space suit development is a major course correction for NASA, which has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing its own suit called the Expeditionary Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. The xEMU suits were to serve both upcoming moon missions and as replacements for older spacewalk suits on the International Space Station.

said Vanessa Witchey, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the home base for NASA astronauts. “So 40 years we’ve been using the same suit based on that technology.”

In 2019, NASA officials excitedly showed off a prototype xEMU in patriotic red, white, and blue, describing how it would provide more flexibility for walking, bending, and twisting.

“You remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — they hopped on the moon,” then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the 2019 event. “Well, now we’ll be able to walk on the moon, which is very different from our suits in the past.”

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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. By the time the audit was released, NASA was already soliciting ideas from the aerospace industry.

In June last year, NASA selected two companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to build future NASA spacesuits for the Moon and the International Space Station. The value of the prizes will reach $3.5 billion until 2034 for the companies. Axiom and Collins were the only two companies to submit full-fledged bids for the contract.

In September, Axiom won the first lot: $228 million for the development of the lunar suit.

NASA provided the requirements the lunar suit needed to meet as well as access to NASA’s work and experience with previous spacesuits including xEMU. Axiom will retain ownership of the suits even when they are used by NASA astronauts.

“Think of it like a rental car,” said Lara Kearney, NASA administrator overseeing the space suit program. So Axiom will provide the equipment needed for training and flight. They’re going to bring those hardware in, and we, NASA, are going to use and operate them on the lunar surface for the moonwalk.”

Axiom officials said about half of their design is based on xEMU. 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 few small details, but for the most part it’s been a straightforward transfer.”

Axiom has turned to experts in the automotive, oil and gas and theater industries for design innovations. The pressure suit — the part that keeps air from leaking into space — and the glove are two examples of components designed by Axiom engineers, said Mark Greeley, program manager for extravehicular activity at Axiom.

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The new suits will also fit more people than existing spacesuits.

“We have different sizes of items that we can replace — medium, large and small, if you will — with different ingredients,” Mr. 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 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 big boost for Artemis.

Artemis’ first mission, Artemis I, launched without a crew on board in November, testing the Orion capsule that will carry astronauts into lunar orbit and back to Earth. The mission was successful, although not complete. Orion’s heat shield did well enough to protect the spacecraft during its reentry into the atmosphere, but not by the same design.

“We had more freedom from charred material during re-entry 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 a Canadian. This crew will remain in the capsule and will not need moon suits. NASA plans to announce the crew of Artemis 2 on April 3.

NASA said at least one of the two astronauts who will walk on the moon during Artemis III will be a woman.

“When that first woman lands on the moon in Artemis III, she’s going to be wearing the Axiom spacesuit,” NASA Associate Administrator Mr. Cabana said Wednesday.