A human hasn’t landed on the moon since 1972, but NASA’s Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by 2024. Part of that process involves upgrading the classic spacesuits worn by Apollo-era astronauts in the 1960s and 70s.
NASA revealed two new spacesuits for the Artemis astronauts on Tuesday with live demonstrations. The suit for the planned landing at the lunar south pole is called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, because the red, white and blue suit itself is a bit like a spaceship in the way it protects the astronauts, NASA said. A second orange suit called the Orion Crew Survival System will be worn during launch and re-entry in the Orion spacecraft and provide thermal protection for the astronauts.
The suits improve on the technology used in the Apollo suits as well as those currently used by astronauts on the International Space Station. These will also accommodate more sizes and provide more comfort and mobility. Bearings replace zippers for more mobility in the pressurized suits.
When NASA created the first space missions, they knew astronauts flying on the Mercury and Apollo missions would need special suits. Most of the men were Air Force test pilots. And fittingly, the suits were upgrades of Navy flight suits for high altitudes.
The agency now knows more about the moon and what to expect on the lunar surface. For example, ahead of the Apollo 11 moon landing, engineers worried that the moon dust wouldn’t be stable enough to support the lunar lander or even astronauts walking on it.
They discovered a different risk in the dust — tiny shards of glass-like material. And the moon’s temperature extremes could compromise the safety of the astronauts.
The new suit is designed to keep out dust so that it doesn’t infiltrate the life support system and can keep an astronaut safe between the temperature extremes of negative 250 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, accounting for shade and sun, especially at the south pole.
The suit itself looks similar to the Apollo-era ones with its backpack functioning as the life support system that astronauts can wear on the lunar surface. It powers the suit, holds oxygen, removes toxic gases, odor and moisture from the suit, regulates temperature, monitors performance and issues warnings.
But the most notable differences are in the details. Technology has been miniaturized to allow for duplicates to avoid errors. This could even allow for longer spacewalks.
“The Artemis Generation of spacesuits will fit everyone,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We want every person who dreams of going into space to have that opportunity.”
Anatomy of a spacesuit
The new suit is also slightly sleeker, allowing a greater range of motion while still protecting the astronauts from radiation, temperature extremes, and micrometeoroids.
The main suit is a pressure garment consisting of a helmet, upper torso, lower torso and a cooling garment.
A new communications system in the helmet replaces the “snoopy caps” the Apollo astronauts wore, which would fill with sweat. Instead of the microphones that would sometimes shift away from the astronaut’s mouth, multiple microphones are embedded that activate when the astronaut is talking.
To allow for mobility, the upper torso has a new shoulder placement so the astronauts can move their arms in a range of motion, lift objects overhead or reach across their body. The Apollo suits only really accommodated up and down motion, but the new suit provides full arm rotation from shoulder to wrist.
The lower torso, a new addition, will allow for better bending and rotating at the hips and knees. The so-called “moon boots” are similar to a hiking boot with flexible soles.
One thing remains the same: the astronauts will continue to wear absorbing garments similar to diapers in the event that they need to go to the bathroom during a long spacewalk.
Customization on the job
The suits are comprised of parts that can lock together for a spacewalk on the lunar surface or even in zero gravity like outside of a spacecraft or the International Space Station. NASA wants to use this same technology when its astronauts attempt a Martian landing.
The helmet will include a protective visor that can be replaced if it’s damaged, scratched or dented. That way, astronauts can continue on with spacewalks rather than having to send the helmet back to Earth for repairs.
Going from zero gravity to the limited gravity of the moon requires different capabilities. The lower torso, consisting of pants and boots, could be modified from supporting an astronaut walking on a surface compared to floating in space, where they don’t need to use their legs as much.
The suit will allow astronauts to climb into it from the back. This means the shoulder pieces can be closer together, allowing for a better fit, more mobility and reducing any risk of shoulder injury.
Customization also means a better fit for astronauts. Each astronaut has a full body scan while wearing the suit at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. That can be used to determine the best suit components for a particular astronaut to protect their full range of motion and ensure a perfect fit.
The suits will undergo testing on the International Space Station before they’re used for Artemis missions. NASA will then have a better idea of how the suits function in zero gravity while the astronauts conduct science and basic operations.