With NASA’s 2024 Moon landing deadline fast approaching, a number of hardware elements need to be developed and tested in short order. One of those is a lunar surface spacesuit.
On Oct. 4, 2019, NASA announced in a request for information that it was seeking industry feedback to help “refine and mature” a strategy for production and services for spacesuits that will be used by astronauts in the agency’s Artemis Moon program.
NASA said it is currently designing and developing a spacesuit that is expected to not only be used for lunar surface exploration, but also in microgravity at the International Space Station and Lunar Gateway.
Currently, space station crews use a suit called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. There are only a limited number of those suits in use and all of them were built in the 1980s for the space shuttle program before being modified for use aboard the ISS. According to a NASA Office of Inspector General report in 2017, a total of 18 EMUs with Portable Life Support System backpacks were built. Today, only 11 are functional.
So not only is it important to come up with a design for lunar — and eventually Martian — exploration, NASA desperately needs to replace its decades-old suits aboard the International Space Station.
In comes the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility unit, or xEMU. The design builds upon the experiences and lessons learned using the EMU over the last three decades and applies them toward a next-generation design.
The goal is for the agency to build and certify the initial suits to support a demonstration at the ISS in 2023 as well as the first human lunar landing in 2024 — the Artemis 3 mission.
Beyond that, NASA said it is looking to transition production, assembly, testing, sustainability and maintenance of suits and their associated hardware to industry partners. There is even the option to potentially commercialize the design so companies could provide spacewalk capabilities to non-NASA customers.
The latter is part of NASA’s goal commercializing various aspects of human space exploration and development starting with low Earth orbit capabilities and eventually lunar infrastructure.
NASA said the xEMU design is expected to be able to support spacewalks in various arenas, be they the dusty surfaces of the Moon or Mars, or the microgravity environment of the ISS or Lunar Gateway. They should also be able to support astronauts while driving rovers, collecting surface samples and be able to fit a “broader range” of crew sizes for improved fit, comfort and mobility.
This also includes a new “highly mobile” torso design that would support walking and kneeling on the lunar surface.
“You won’t see the bunny hopping and falls like those seen in the Apollo videos, because we’ve added bearings and new soft elements to help the suit move smoothly with the wearer,” said Marshall Smith, director of the Human Lunar Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in an agency news release. “With the improvements to the suits for Artemis missions, astronauts can now open up new possibilities for science and exploration at the Moon.”
Other improvements expected to be included, NASA said, are upgradable life support systems in order to allow for components to be swapped out for better technology in the future or as the needs of particular missions dictate.
For NASA’s request for information, the agency is looking to get feedback on production as well as how particular companies would support the evolution of the xEMU and how they would recommend any improvements to the initial suit design.
“With the help of partners from industry and academia, we have developed a suite of advanced spacesuit components in preparation for missions to distant destinations,” said Smith. “Now we will take the next step together in the boots of the new exploration suit for Artemis missions at the Moon.”
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