The historic spacesuits worn by the first woman and the next American astronaut to walk on the moon will be left on the SpaceX lunar lander, not returned to Earth for reuse or museum display.
Axiom Space, the Houston-based space services company selected by NASA to design, manufacture and supply spacesuits for the Artemis 3 lunar mission in 2025, has unveiled a prototype of its lunar suit. (will open in a new tab) during a press conference at Space Center Houston on Wednesday (March 15). Axiom President and CEO Michael Saffredini and Mark Greely, head of the company’s spacewalk program, talk about the fate of the Artemis 3 suits (will open in a new tab) in a short interview.
“They will go up to Starship and then the crew will transfer from Orion to Starship to descend to the surface of the Moon,” Greeley told collectSPACE.com, talking about how the two pieces of clothing first get to the Moon.
NASA’s approach to the first moon landing in over 50 years differs from the last time with Apollo, in that the crew launches separately from the lunar lander and then they meet in lunar orbit. Four Artemis 3 astronauts will depart Earth aboard the Orion capsule built by Lockheed Martin. Once on the Moon, the two crew members will transition to a human landing system, a version of the SpaceX Starship spacecraft. (will open in a new tab)and the other two remain in lunar orbit aboard Orion.
At the end of mission ground operations (will open in a new tab), two of Artemis’ rovers, including the first woman to land on the moon, will launch in a starship and then rendezvous with Orion to return to Earth. Due to weight restrictions, only the small supply of moon rocks they bring back from the lunar surface, and possibly some low-mass equipment, will be brought to Orion for the return home.
“The suits will return to Starship, and then Starship will remain in [lunar] orbit indefinitely,” Greeley said.
Related: Axiom Space shows Artemis astronaut spacesuit prototype on the Moon
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At least that’s the plan for the two Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) spacesuits used on the Artemis 3 mission as of Wednesday.
“This is the current thought process,” Suffredini said. “But that will happen in a few years, and things like this do happen. So it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point we have a conversation about what might be possible.”
“Perhaps gloves or some other small details will return,” Greeley added.
Returning from the surface of the Moon, the starship will run out of fuel needed to return to Earth. The vehicle is designed to be refuelable, but the Artemis 3 is not expected to have a refueling station in late 2025.
Everything that can and does return from the Moon, from the point of view of AxEMU, Axiom Space will do with what the company decides.
“The suits are ours,” said Suffredini. “We provide a service and that’s really important because if we didn’t own them, we couldn’t sell the service to others. This is the whole concept of commercialization that NASA is involved in. If they are built by NASA, it is difficult to sell services, but when we build ourselves and provide services to NASA, we can also sell services to others. So we own this asset.”
If the Artemis 3 AxEMU suits are scrapped in lunar orbit, it won’t be the first time that astronaut gear from NASA’s historic missions has failed to be salvaged.
During the Apollo missions, NASA astronauts wore the same compression garments for walking on the Moon as they did for launching from Earth and returning to Earth, so the suits made the trip back and forth. (will open in a new tab). However, the parts they added to work on the lunar surface were often left to save weight.
Consequently, the boots (or overshoes) that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong wore to take his first “small step” are still at Tranquility Base.
Related: Apollo 11: Everything you need to know about the historic moon landing
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In the space shuttle era, the only spacesuits lost were on board the ill-fated Challenger and Columbia missions. After the decision was made to decommission the winged orbiters, NASA was originally supposed to place the remaining parts of the suit on the International Space Station. (will open in a new tab).
Due to the lack of a vehicle with the required payload capacity, the plan for extra-vehicular vehicles (EMUs) was to scrap them as they became obsolete. The suits would be allowed to burn (will open in a new tab) with other garbage packed aboard a decommissioned Russian cargo ship.
This ultimately did not happen as NASA approached its commercial partners to bring crew and cargo to and from the space station. Since then, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft has been used to land suit components for maintenance on Earth, allowing them to be reused. (will open in a new tab).
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