What, exactly, does one wear for an occasion so esteemed as a walk on the Moon?
It might seem like such a small detail in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a pretty important factor in keeping astronauts cool, comfortable and, well, alive.
A spacesuit redesign was unveiled this week, showing off a sleek-looking prototype to officials, students and media at NASA’s Space Centre Houston in Texas.
NASA called on Axiom Space to design a modern suit for the Artemis III mission, which will land astronauts, including the first woman, on the Moon for the first time in more than half a century.
Axiom Space was called on to design the mission’s entire moonwalking system, including the suits, and its designers built on NASA’s spacesuit prototype which “incorporates the latest technology, enhanced mobility, and added protection from hazards at the Moon,” a press release for the launch read.
According to their release, NASA defined the technical and safety standards for the suits and Axiom Space agreed to meet NASA’s requirements.
The prototype is said to be a better fit for women space travellers, who have, until now, seen some missions thwarted due to a lack of suits in their size. The existing spacesuits worn by U.S. space travellers have not been fully redesigned since 1981.
In 2019, NASA had plans to send a team of women astronauts to complete a spacewalk from the International Space Station. However, in the days leading up to the mission, it was found that there weren’t enough spacesuits in the correct size for both Anne McClain and Christina Koch, and McClain was replaced with her male colleague, Nick Hauge.
NASA says a well-fitting suit is essential to provide oxygen at the correct pressure to allow astronauts to survive in the near-vacuum of space. If the balance is off, an astronaut’s lungs can expand rapidly and cause them to die.
Lara Kearney, manager of NASA’s spacesuit and rovers team, told the watching crowd Wednesday that these new suits will also allow more flexibility and temperature regulation.
“The moon is a hostile place, and the south pole is really going to be a challenge,” she said of the Artemis III mission, which is set to launch in December 2025. “A lot of thermal requirements, we are looking for improved mobility so our astronauts can operate more efficiently.”
Special joints have been stitched into the new suits, to allow better range of motion, and the helmet comes equipped with built-in lights and an HD camera. Two hinges on the back of each suit will allow astronauts to shimmy in feet-first, and a backpack provides a portable life support system.
The boots will feature extra insulation to keep the travellers’ feet nice and warm while they work in the cold shadows.
The Artemis III mission will be the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 touched down in 1972, and it’s poised to include the first woman and first person of color to walk on the Moon.
The Artemis I mission, the inaugural launch of NASA’s next-generation rocket and newly-built Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight around the moon and back, was successfully completed in December.
NASA and the Canadian Space Agency will soon announce the four astronauts chosen to fly as early as next year on Artemis II, another out-and-back mission.
If successful, Artemis III will go ahead.
NASA chief Bill Nelson said the new spacesuits “will open opportunities for more people to explore and conduct science on the moon than ever before.”
However, the suit revealed this week isn’t an exact copy of what we’ll see come launch day; the charcoal colour revealed this week is meant to protect from public view the proprietary fabric used by Axiom.
However, they did reveal that the suits worn on the lunar south pole will likely be white, as it’s the best colour to protect from the harsh glare of the sun on the Moon’s surface as well as the best colour to protect the wearer from extreme heat.
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