Suited for the 21st Century
NASA’s first major space suit redesign in over 40 years is the next step in the process of future lunar colonization.
The last moon landing was the Apollo 17 mission, which occurred in 1972. If NASA’s Artemis program is successful, however, this could mean another lunar mission by 2024. Artemis’ ultimate objective is to achieve a sustainable human presence on the moon, and potentially enable travel to Mars from the moon. With the recent discovery of accessible lunar ice (and subsequently water), this goal could be recognized sooner than anticipated. Before NASA can get there, however, extensive technological upgrades are required, especially in the suit design. Over the past years, many private companies like SpaceX and Boeing have developed their own suit models, but none are quite as interesting as NASA’s own suit, the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (or xEMU, for short).
Prior to xEMU, the last suit design was over 40 years old, according to George Neild, previously the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation.
Though there have been no suit-related deaths as of yet, the old suits were certainly not infallible. This became apparent when Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut, nearly drowned due to a cooling system failure on a spacewalk back in 2013. Additionally, the old suits were stiff and provided little in the way of mobility—a shortcoming that may not have had much impact on the early moon missions but would most certainly need improving for NASA’s plans of lunar colonization. Astronauts living in future lunar bases would likely be required to conduct geological research, making ample mobility and dexterity a must for the new suits.
So what kind of upgrades do the xEMU's offer?
Previous versions of the suits could hardly allow walking—astronauts made their way across the surface of the moon in more of a shuffling fashion—and kneeling down was impossible. In debriefing following the first moon landing, Neil Armstrong himself suggested “We should clear that suit so that you could go down to your knees, and we should work more on being able to do things on the surface with your hands.” With decades worth of research and design, xEMU's are able to offer this mobility by placing bearings in the shoulders, hips, and all other leg joints, making walking much more natural and giving astronauts the ability to bend over and pick objects up from the moon’s surface. The developments in materials design and engineering have also made the suit components significantly lighter. Considering the old Apollo suits weighed approximately 24kg or 53lbs on the moon (where gravity is only ⅙ that of Earth’s), this reduction in weight will allow astronauts greater freedom of movement.
Another notable change is the xEMUs’ ability to withstand extreme temperatures. The Artemis Program aims to send crew members to a previously unexplored region of the moon’s south pole.
Temperatures there are much more extreme than other areas that had been visited by prior astronauts, with the temperatures dropping as low as -370 degrees Fahrenheit in the shadiest regions.
Fortunately, astronauts will not be required to work in those conditions, but resistance to cold temperatures is still a must. The xEMU's are designed to withstand anywhere within the range of -250 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, the widest thermal range of any suit to date.
Among the significant improvements in the xEMU's is NASA’s ability to create custom fits for astronauts using 3D scans and models. NASA’s Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility is able to select personalized suit dimensions and components for each astronaut. While this may not seem like anything remarkable, suit sizing has proven to be a challenge in the past. In March of 2019, what would have been the first all-woman spacewalk was canceled since most of the old spacesuits could not fit the astronauts. (Editor's Note: As a result of this cancellation, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch took part in the all-woman spacewalk nearly a year later. Following her return to Earth, The Finch Podcast spoke to Jessica Meir about her experiences).
The xEMU's are currently undergoing rigorous rounds of testing underwater before they are approved for use in the Artemis program. If things remain on track for Artemis, then in a few years, these suits will bring us back to the moon once again. Acquiring the proper armor to conquer the final frontier of space is but one small step in the journey of space travel, but the development of these suits may signify a growth in astronomical research to come.
For a timeline of the evolution of spacesuit design, click here.