Privately made spacesuits for NASA moon astronauts could hit a big design milestone this year.
Officials with Axiom Space, the company making spacesuits for the Artemis program, said Monday (Jan. 22) that the garments may reach a critical design review soon. In fact, that review could happen as soon as June. However, the news comes just two weeks after NASA was forced to delay its astronaut touchdown plans by an additional year. As of now, landing is expected to occur no earlier than 2026.
The new generation of moon fashion should allow Artemis astronauts greater flexibility than the bunny-hopping Apollo crews of the 1960s and 1970s, who worked in stiff fabric. But the feat of dressing Artemis explorers safely has caused schedule concerns; the earliest was announced in 2021 by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The department had warned that NASA’s spacesuit development program in general did not allow for a moon landing in 2024 (the goal at that time). NASA added an extra year for landing preparation to target 2025.
Progress has been made since then with two private vendors, but ongoing technical delays with the spacesuits, SpaceX‘s Starship lander and the crewed Artemis 2 round-the-moon mission forced NASA this month to once again push back Artemis 3‘s landing to no earlier than 2026 — a decision officials say they took in large part to meet safety requirements.
Post-Apollo moon spacesuits have a long history at NASA; the agency had at least three internal programs between 2007 and 2021, for example, according to the OIG report. The latest of the programs, targeted for Artemis, was the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), but progress on that front was slowed by “funding shortfalls, COVID-19 impacts, and technical challenges,” the report stated.
NASA then pivoted from its immediate lunar spacesuit plans to soliciting private vendors, securing design teams led by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace in June 2022. The companies began competing for a lucrative set of task orders collectively valued at a maximum of $3.5 billion for a “period of performance” through 2034, per agency materials. The first task order, for Artemis 3’s landing, was awarded to Axiom Space in September 2022 with a base value of $228.5 million.
Axiom Space revealed its prototype Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) in a livestreamed March 2023 event, although that version was concealed by a colorful layer so as to hide proprietary elements from the camera. Axiom’s work on AxEMU is ongoing with a large set of industry experts: KBR, Air-Lock, Arrow Science and Technology, David Clark Company, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sophic Synergistics and A-P-T Research, company officials said at the time.
Unlike the ILC Industries-made Apollo spacesuits, which worked around the lunar equator, Artemis spacesuits must operate in the colder and more remote lunar south pole region. Potentially, this is where water ice may be present on the moon. Water is key to a sustainable moon presence as it can be used for rocket fuel and life support systems, NASA has said.
AxEMU will be tested in the next two years in vacuum chambers that can simulate the temperature and lack of atmosphere of space. They’ll also be demonstrated in underwater conditions at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. That’s where astronauts train for spacewalks, per Axiom materials.
NASA’s currently active, spacesuits, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), were designed in the 1970s for the space shuttle program and remain in use on the International Space Station for floating spacewalks. The EMU design, which is not designed for walking or lunar gravity, requires a newer spacesuit set for moon landings.
The EMU was designed for males (and statistically larger bodies) during an era when no other genders were under recruitment in the astronaut corps. Astronaut hiring practices changed decades ago, and NASA continues striving to improve; that said, spacesuits are expensive to replace.
In the meantime, few female spacewalkers have been able to use the EMU suit. Only four spacewalks have been all-female, for example.
In their statement, Axiom officials emphasized the company’s plans for its own spacesuit to “accommodate a wide range of crew members” and said that it is consulting with “different subjects, including engineers and astronauts” in meeting that goal. The AxEMU will offer other benefits as well, including the ability to work with specialized Axiom Space tools on the lunar surface — and the ability to stand in permanently shadowed regions of the moon for two hours or more.
The Artemis program, led by NASA, includes a coalition of more than 30 nations under the Artemis Accords. A subset of countries are actively funding contributions to moon missions, while others are on board to sign on to NASA-led peaceful space exploration norms.
Artemis was first formulated under the Trump administration through a series of space policy directives, accelerating NASA’s plans to land astronauts on the moon; the program then continued under Biden.
Though it’s been in the works for so long, agency officials emphasize safety must come first before any moon-landing deadline. Still, recent delays in landing NASA astronauts nevertheless caused concerns from some members of Congress this month, who say that a Russian-Chinese alliance of nations may arrive on the moon before the United States.
“I remind my colleagues that we are not the only country interested in sending humans to the moon,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said during a livestreamed testimony on Jan. 17.
“The Chinese Communist Party is actively soliciting international partners for a lunar mission, a lunar research station, and has stated its ambition to have human astronauts on the surface by 2030,” Lucas added. “The country that lands first will have the ability to set a precedent for whether future lunar activities are conducted with openness and transparency, or in a more restricted manner.”
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