And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! On stage, a man steps forward to cheers and applause. The reason for this excitement is not his personality, but what he is wearing: a prototype of the new spacesuit that the next astronauts on the Moon will wear.
The event was hosted on Wednesday in Houston, Texas by NASA and Axiom Space, which won a contract a few months ago to develop suits for the Artemis 3 mission.
This US space agency mission, officially scheduled for 2025, is to land astronauts on the moon’s surface for the first time in more than half a century, including the first woman.
A few more secrets
In Houston, Chief Engineer Jim Stein, selected to don the suit, demonstrated by waving his arms, leaning over and even crouching. Improved mobility and range of motion is one of the great advances of this state of the art suit compared to the suits of the Apollo program.
But one thing won’t change: it will always be white, assured Russell Ralston, deputy head of the EVA program at Axiom Space. White makes it possible to better reflect the sun’s rays, it is better to regulate the temperature inside the suit. If the prototype unveiled on Wednesday was black and orange, that’s because it included an extra layer meant to keep certain aspects of development private.
Indeed, Artemis Axiom Space is still competing with Collins Aerospace for future mission contracts. NASA paid $228.5 million for this first Artemis 3 contract.
“Any European would look amazing there, and no doubt many will have the opportunity to wear it…,” French astronaut Thomas Pesquet tweeted. “But I don’t know, I think it would still look good on me, right?”
On the Moon, spacesuits will have to withstand particularly harsh conditions. The South Pole, where the Artemis missions will land, can withstand temperatures in excess of 50°C, but also very cold (down to less than 200°C at the bottom of some craters). Other difficulties: dust or sharp stones.
Thus, the materials used for the various layers of the suit are insulating, tear-resistant and prevent dust from adhering, explained Russell Ralston. The suits will not be completely custom made for each astronaut, but there will be different sizes. The helmet has front lights and a high-definition camera that will allow you to follow the exit from Earth live.
Backpack and … diapers
The astronauts put on the spacesuit, opening it from behind. They will also have a backpack containing what they need to survive: “Like a bottle of compressed air and a very sophisticated air conditioner combined,” Russell Ralston described. The suits can be worn for at least eight consecutive hours, for testing and other scientific research.
If the company has described the suit as “revolutionary,” one thing will not change from the time of Apollo: for their natural needs, astronauts will always wear multiple layers underneath.
Designing a space suit is extremely difficult, and it hasn’t been done in the United States since the days of the space shuttle. Thus, the technology of those currently used to go beyond the International Space Station (ISS) is the same as it was about 40 years ago.
Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace are also responsible for developing new EVA suits. Until now, NASA has owned its space suits, but has opted for a different model for the future by leasing them to the private sector.
However, Axiom’s developments, called AxEMU (for Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit), account for about 50% of NASA’s recent R&D that has made its knowledge available to companies, said Michael Saffredini, head of Axiom Space. The company plans to build its own space station, so it will need suits for future customers on board.