“A spacesuit is basically a self-contained environment,” Don Barker, suit architecture lead at NASA, says in a video released by the space agency this week. “It’s a mini spacecraft that is tightly wound around a human body.”
The video looks at some of the challenges faced by NASA and its partners when it comes to designing the next-generation spacesuits for crewed missions to the moon in the next few years, and the first astronaut voyages to Mars in the late 2030s or early 2040s.
When it comes to the lunar missions, the biggest challenge facing spacesuit designers is working out how to retain suit mobility while protecting the wearer against hazardous dust.
“When your life depends on a good seal and perfectly performing fabrics, dust is kind of a big deal,” NASA said in the video.
Barker explains that dust on the moon is different to Earth dust. “Lunar regolith looks like it’s a fine-grained material when you see the pictures of the Apollo boots in it … But you’re going to see anywhere from broken rock shapes to fractured glass shapes — that’s what it looks like under the microscope — of such a small particle size range that it gets in everything.” And yes, those fragments can damage fabrics.
NASA points out that while astronauts on the Apollo missions of 50 years ago only needed their suits to last for a few moonwalks, the upcoming missions to the moon and Mars could last for weeks, months, or even years, and so the suits need to be durable enough to handle lengthy exposure to moon dust.
Possible solutions include adding a special protective layer or charging the suits to repel dust, though the research is ongoing.
Who is making the suits?
Last month, NASA awarded contracts for spacesuit design to two companies, Texas-based Axiom Space and North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace.
Collins Aerospace is working with Oceaneering and ILC Dover, which designed the spacesuit used by the lunar astronauts five decades ago, as well as for spacewalks outside the International Space Station (ISS) in more recent times.
The new spacesuits will be used for future spacewalks outside the ISS, but, more importantly, will also be used for the Artemis III mission that’s aiming to put the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface before the end of this decade. If that landing goes without a hitch, subsequent astronauts staying for longer periods at specially built moon bases will also use the suits.