Dubbed AxEMU, the next generation suit is designed to be safe, flexible, and capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures experienced at the lunar south pole, where two NASA astronauts are expected to land later this decade.
The first prototype of the next generation spacesuit was revealed during a Moon to Mars event at NASA’s Space Center Houston on Wednesday. NASA partnered with Axiom Space to develop the first moonwalking spacesuits since Apollo, which will be worn by astronauts on the lunar surface as part of the space agency’s Artemis program.
NASA’s Associate Administrator Bob Cabana recalls looking back at the images from the Apollo mission and seeing the spacesuits “that enabled the astronauts to make those first steps on the Moon,” he said during the event. “Now we’re developing a spacesuit for a new generation, the Artemis generation, the generation that’s gonna take us back to the moon and onto Mars, and it is going to be so exciting.”
It’s been more than 50 years since the Apollo program, and all that time is reflected in how vastly different the new spacesuits are to the ones worn by astronauts in 1969. Aside from a more modern, sleek look, the next generation spacesuits are equipped with advanced capabilities designed to give astronauts more flexibility, comfort, and safety while exploring the lunar surface.
AxEMU, or Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit, was developed with the legacy of NASA spacesuits in mind while incorporating new technology, more mobility, and protection from the lunar environment. The new suit is also designed to “fit a broad range of crew members, accommodating at least 90 percent of the U.S. male and female population,” NASA wrote in a statement. This reflects the space agency’s plan to land the first woman on the Moon as part of the Artemis 3 mission.
Axiom engineer Jim Stein modeled the spacesuit during the event, walking on stage with the help of a staff that will likely be used for balance and exploring the lunar surface. Stein showed off the bright headlights on each side of the helmet, as well as a high-definition camera and a backpack that contains the astronauts’ life support system. He also performed some squats and lateral lunges, and bent down as though to pick something off the floor, to display the newly designed flexibility of the spacesuits.
Lara Kearney, manager, Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program, NASA Johnson, said Axiom will retain ownership of the suit under a special services contract, saying the company is welcome to seek out commercial customers to use the suit.
Although the spacesuit prototype worn on stage during the event was dark grey, the actual spacesuits that will be worn by astronauts on the Moon will likely be all-white “to help keep astronauts safe and cool while working in the harsh environment of space,” NASA wrote on Twitter.
Indeed, the suit shown during the event featured a grey cover layer that won’t appear during actual in-space missions. Talking to reporters afterward, Russell Ralston, deputy program manager for extravehicular activity at Axiom Space, said the cover layer is used for ground testing and training, adding that it’s “like wearing a jacket,” a fabric layer that protects the inner layers of the suit. Responding to a reporter’s question, Mark Greeley, Axiom Space’s extravehicular activity program manager, admitted that the cover layer was also used to protect sensitive information. “We are in competition with Collins [Aersospace],” he said, “so there are things we haven’t revealed below the suit that are proprietary to Axiom.”
Related story: NASA Selects Collins Aerospace to Design New Spacesuits for the ISS
The new spacesuit has been a long time coming, with the current design used by NASA astronauts dating back to more than 40 years ago. In June 2022, NASA partnered up with Axiom Space to develop the next generation spacesuit to be worn by astronauts on future Artemis missions, as well as for astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS). The ones that will be worn on the ISS will serve as a testbed for the upcoming Artemis 3 mission, which will land humans on the Moon no earlier than 2025.
Greeley said the suit’s architecture is basically the same for lunar exploration as it is for work in low Earth orbit, aside from different boots and gloves.
Key to the new spacesuit is the use of fabrics. The “insulation layer is much more complex,” Ralston said, and it features a “variety of layers sandwiched and laminated inside” to help with the insulation. To deal with excess heat, the suit is designed to radiate much of it away, except for the boots, which have insulating materials to prevent them from getting too hot or cold, Ralston said.
The suit can support a crew member for 8 hours, as opposed to the 6 hour limit of the current suits, according to Ralston. Artemis astronauts will still have to wear diapers, he admitted, saying that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.
“It’s a huge deal to be selected to provide the lunar spacesuit for NASA’s Artemis program,” Michael Suffredini, Axiom Space president and CEO, said during the event. “We’re not just taking the nation to the Moon and beyond, we’re taking civilization to the Moon and beyond and so we’re pleased that humanity’s next steps on the Moon are gonna be in an Axiom spacesuit.”
This is a breaking story. Check back for updates. Additional reporting by George Dvorsky.
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