NASA and Texas-based company Axiom Space have revealed a new spacesuit design — and it could be these very suits that are eventually worn by the first woman and person of color to walk on the moon.
The spacesuits unveiled by Axiom Space at Space Center Houston on Wednesday are prototypes, though the company says it will be delivering spacesuits that can be used for astronaut training by late summer. The company won a contract last year to produce the suits for NASA.
The new design, which looked black with blue and orange detailing for the unveiling, appeared to take on a vastly different aesthetic than the puffy white suits worn by moonwalkers of the 20th century. However, Axiom Space noted in a news release that its suits are covered in an extra layer — bearing the company's colors and logo — for display purposes.
The actual spacesuits worn by astronauts must be white "to reflect heat and protect astronauts from extreme high temperatures," according to the release.
"We have not had a new suit since the suits that we designed for the space shuttle and those suits are currently in use on the space station," said Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "So for 40 years, we've been using the same suit based on that technology. And now today, Axiom is going to innovate. We're going to provide (access to) all of our facilities and we will be working together to make sure that we have a safe suit that performs and everything that our astronauts use for doing surface operations."
The suits will serve a crucial role in NASA's Artemis program, which seeks to return astronauts to the lunar surface later this decade on a mission dubbed Artemis III. After astronauts land at the lunar south pole, the spacesuits will serve as mobile life support, allowing them to explore the lunar terrain on foot.
"NASA's partnership with Axiom is critical to landing astronauts on the Moon and continuing American leadership in space," said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. "Building on NASA's years of research and expertise, Axiom's next generation spacesuits will not only enable the first woman to walk on the Moon, but they will also open opportunities for more people to explore and conduct science on the Moon than ever before. Our partnership is investing in America, supporting America's workers, and demonstrating another example of America's technical ingenuity that will position NASA and the commercial space sector to compete — and win — in the 21st century."
The design of the spacesuits borrows from NASA's own research. The space agency had previously unveiled a prototype design for lunar spacesuits in 2019, called xEMU.
"Leveraging NASA's Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) spacesuit design, the Axiom Space spacesuits are built to provide increased flexibility, greater protection to withstand the harsh environment and specialized tools to accomplish exploration needs and expand scientific opportunities," the company said in a news release. "Using innovative technologies, the new spacesuit will enable exploration of more of the lunar surface than ever before."
The new suit allows for more range of motion and flexibility and its design can accommodate at least 90% of the US male and female population, according to NASA. Axiom Space will develop, certify and produce the spacesuits and the company will "test the suit in a spacelike environment prior to the mission."
Features of the suit include an HD video camera and a light band mounted to the visor of the helmet. The light band will afford astronauts better visibility as they work in the permanently shadowed regions of the lunar south pole or go on spacewalks, said Russel Ralston, deputy program manager at Axiom Space.
A hatch with two hinges located on the back of the suit allows astronauts to enter the spacesuit feet first, then shimmy into it, and a backpack provides the portable life support system. The boots have been reinforced with extra insulation to keep the astronauts' feet warm as they work in icy regions of the moon that never see sunlight.
"This is this is a great example of what innovation can do," said Peggy Whitson, retired NASA astronaut and current Axiom astronaut. "This is going to be such a much more flexible suit and the range of motion is really going to improve the astronauts' ability to do all those tasks that they're going to do while they're out exploring on the lunar surface and eventually on Mars."
Whitson, who holds the record among Americans and women for spending the most time in space — a total of 665 days — is the director of human spaceflight at Axiom and is slated to launch on Axiom's Ax-2 to the International Space Station in May.
Developing new spacesuits capable of keeping astronauts alive on the moon has been a years-long effort at NASA. At one point in 2021, the space agency's inspector general, Paul Martin, warned that significant delays in bringing new spacesuits to fruition would quash NASA's goal of getting humans to the moon by 2024. The space agency has already delayed the crewed lunar landing to no earlier than 2025.
Martin concluded at the time that the suits were "years away from completion" and would cost more than $1 billion dollars.
Then, NASA announced that it would allow the private sector to take over production of the spacesuits, and the space agency selected Axiom Space as the contractor in September 2022. The deal, referred to as NASA's xEVAS contract, was valued at up to $3.5 billion.
"We're carrying on NASA's legacy by designing an advanced spacesuit that will allow astronauts to operate safely and effectively on the Moon," said Axiom Space CEO Mike Suffredini, who previously worked at NASA for more than 30 years, in a statement. "Axiom Space's Artemis III spacesuit will be ready to meet the complex challenges of the lunar south pole and help grow our understanding of the Moon in order to enable a long-term presence there."
Suffredini served as NASA's International Space Station Program Manager from 2005 to 2015.
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