NASA hopes to land a man and a woman on the lunar surface in late 2025, but the space agency currently lacks a functional moonwalking spacesuit. Houston-based Axiom Space has now been brought in to fill this glaring gap.
Under the newly awarded $228.5 million Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, Axiom must develop “a next generation Artemis spacesuit and supporting systems,” and also “demonstrate their use on the lunar surface,” according to a NASA statement. The suits need to be ready for Artemis 3, a planned mission to land two astronauts on the Moon in just three years. That presents a challenging timeline, so Axiom will need to get cracking.
Axiom will be responsible for the design, development, testing, certification, and production of the “moonwalking system,” as NASA refers to it. The private company must also provide the required support equipment and test the suits in a space-like environment prior to Artemis 3.
Axiom won’t have to go it alone, as the company has partnered with KBR, Air-Lock, Arrow Science and Technology, David Clark Company, and Paragon Space Development Corporation, among other firms. For its part, NASA will manage the contract through its Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program, located in Houston.
Founded in 2016, Axiom Space is an emerging player in the burgeoning spaceflight industry. In 2020, the company won a NASA contract to build a commercial module for the International Space Station. Axiom is also planning to build its own space station, but is in the meantime chartering private trips to the ISS, the second of which is scheduled for the second quarter of 2023. With the newly awarded xEVAS contract, Axiom can add spacesuits to its list of offerings.
“Our team at Axiom Space is honored to be awarded this first task order to build the next-generation spacesuit,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space, said in a statement. “We are excited to provide our expertise to meet NASA’s exploration needs, while simultaneously serving our commercial customers in low Earth orbit and fulfill future space station goals that enable a commercial space economy.”
Details of Axiom’s moonsuit were not disclosed, but it will likely borrow heavily from preexisting work done by NASA, which is extensive. This is undoubtedly prudent, as Axiom is now under a serious time crunch; it wouldn’t make much sense to start the project from scratch. An Axiom press release affirms this plan, as its suit will be modeled after NASA’s Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units (xEMUs):
Axiom’s xEVAS spacesuits accommodate a wide range of crew members. Building off NASA’s xEMU spacesuit design, the Axiom spacesuits are created to provide increased flexibility and specialized tools to accomplish exploration needs and expand scientific opportunities in space. The xEVAS spacesuits design includes life support, pressure garments, and avionics. The Axiom Space team will provide xEVA systems training and real-time operations support to NASA, among other services.
NASA awarded this contract, the first task order under xEVAS, after reviewing proposals from two previously selected vendors, Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace. The space agency didn’t disclose the reason for choosing Axiom over Collins, but as reported in SpaceNews, Axiom’s proposal was 23% below an independent cost estimate for the suits, while Collins’s proposal was 2% below.
NASA said future contract requests will be issued in support of ongoing missions to the Moon. These future task orders will include lunar landings beyond Artemis 3, spacesuits for use outside of the ISS, and for “special studies,” in what is a likely reference to spacesuits needed for a future mission to Mars. Under xEVAS, prospective vendors will compete for $3.5 billion worth of task orders through to 2034.
“What we learn on Artemis 3 and future missions on and around the Moon will pave the way for missions to Mars,” Lara Kearney, manager of NASA’s Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility program, said in the NASA statement. “Spacesuits enable us to literally take that next step.”
The clock is now ticking, as Axiom Space and its partners work to deliver an Artemis moonsuit on time. It’ll be interesting to see how close Axiom’s suit comes to the one envisioned by NASA and which other vendor or vendors, if any outside of Axiom, will win the subsequent task orders.
More: Spacesuits, ranked.