NASA unveils new space suits
Location: Washington, D.C., United States
Date Published: October 16, 2019
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled on Tuesday, October 16, its new prototypes of the spacesuits that will be worn by the first woman to walk on the moon.
In an event at the space agency's headquarters here, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and spacesuit engineers share the first up-close look at two next-generation spacesuits designed for the agency's Artemis program, which aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.
"We are going to the moon by 2024 and we want it to be sustainable," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the event, adding that the moon will be a testing ground to propel astronauts to an even farther destination.
"Ultimately the goal is this: we’re going to Mars," Bridenstine said. "And in order to go to Mars, we need to use the moon as a proving ground."
To reach these ambitious objectives, NASA knows it needs to update its spacesuits so that people of all shapes, sizes, and genders will be able to fly to and explore the moon, Mars and beyond.
"Kristine is wearing a spacesuit that will fit all of our astronauts when we go to the moon," Bridenstine said, motioning to Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, who wore one of the two prototype suits on stage at the event.
The two spacesuit prototypes which NASA showcased are designed for two separate parts of a crewed mission to the moon. One called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) which was worn by Davis, is a red, white and blue suit designed to be worn by astronauts exploring the lunar surface, specifically at the moon’s south pole — the target for NASA's next crewed lunar landing.
The second suit unveiled Wednesday, the Orion Crew Survival System, which is a bright orange pressure suit that will be worn by astronauts when they launch into space on the Orion capsule and return to Earth. It was demonstrated at the event by NASA spacesuit engineer Dustin Gohmert.
The xEMU suit will be the first suit worn on the moon's surface since NASA's Apollo program sent the last astronauts to the moon in 1972. The suit includes a number of improvements from both the Apollo era suits and the suit worn by astronauts completing spacewalks from the International Space Station.
One specific improvement is the sizing and fit, NASA engineers said. The xEMU suit is designed to accommodate a wide variety of sizes and NASA intends for it to fit better, be more comfortable and allow astronauts to move around more easily in the suit.
"The mobility is one of the biggest things," NASA astronaut Kate Rubins said at the spacesuit unveiling. "If you need to pick up a rock … if you're planting a scientific instrument, you need that upper torso mobility."
While these improvements will allow astronauts to hopefully work with less discomfort and more mobility, working in a spacesuit designed for extravehicular activity is still a challenge, as it is a pressurized suit in an extreme and difficult environment. Rubins likened a spacewalk to running a marathon.
Now, while the legs on the EMU spacesuits astronauts currently use for spacewalks outside the International Space Station might not be very important (because the astronauts are floating in space, not exploring terrain on foot), the legs on the xEMU will be vital so careful consideration has been taken to ensure that the suit legs will accommodate relatively easy walking on the moon's surface.
This will hopefully be a major improvement from the Apollo suits, which allowed astronauts only enough mobility to "bunny hop" on the lunar surface.
Additionally, with improved carbon dioxide scrubbing technology, astronauts will be able to spend more time on extravehicular missions — up to 8 hours with an additional extra hour just in case, NASA officials said. The suit will also have improved seams and design to prevent issues with lunar dust, which were a major problem with the Apollo-era suits, they added
The Orion launch and entry suit, designed for flights to and from the moon, also has a number of improvements on older flight suits.
One main feature of the suit is that, while it is a depressurized suit, unlike xEMU, it can pressurize in case of emergency.
For example, Gohmert said, if there were a sudden, unexpected depressurization event on the International Space Station or some other spacecraft, the suit can pressurize and stabilize the astronauts in the suits for up to six days. Additionally, "there may be some future cases of decompression sickness mitigation that we might want to use it for," he added.
The feature show spacesuits double as "personalized spacecraft," as Bridenstine described them.
The new Orion suits are bright orange, following up on a tradition set by NASA's Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) during the space shuttle era, which had a similar pumpkin-orange hue for visibility.