On Wednesday morning, an engineer with private space company Axiom walked out onto a stage at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, smiling from behind a domed helmet and visor. He was demonstrating a prototype of a new spacesuit, intended for use in the Artemis III mission slated for 2025, which will send astronauts back to the moon for the first time in more than half a century.
Though NASA awarded Axiom the contract to develop the new suit only last year, the reveal builds on many years of work, and many dollars spent, to update the agency’s existing spacesuits for new requirements and a more diverse crew of astronauts. But spacesuit development in the post-space shuttle era has proved to be particularly tricky. In fact, this was NASA’s second such reveal of a new suit, with NASA unveiling a prototype in 2019 before the more recent pivot to bring Axiom in.
Still, Axiom officials on Wednesday said they plan to have the suit ready to go for the 2025 launch to the moon in the midst of a re-energized global space race. China, which has built the Tiangong space station, also has kicked around the idea of building a lunar research station to compete with a similar facility proposed as part of the Artemis mission.
“We have not had a new suit since the suits that we designed for the space shuttle, and those suits are currently in use on the [International] Space Station. Forty years we’ve been using the same suit, based on that technology,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, during the event on Wednesday. Axiom’s new suit, she said, will have “more functionality, more performance, more capability, and we’re very excited.”
Dated and discriminatory technology
The existing spacesuits in use aboard the space station and during the space shuttle’s lifetime focused on use in microgravity, and thus had very little mobility in the waist and legs. With walking around on the moon as a new goal, that needed to change.
For 40 years, “we didn’t have a different destination to go to. And now we do. So that also brings in a new set of requirements,” said Ana Diaz Artiles, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, who works on modernizing spacesuit design. “The current suit wasn’t designed … to go to the moon.”
In general, the existing suits seemed in dire need of an upgrade. In fact, at one point last year, NASA suspended all but the most urgent spacewalks on the International Space Station after water was found in an astronaut’s helmet during a previous walk.
Aside from addressing the current suits’ dated functionality, the upgrade also is intended to address how earlier spacesuits were generally designed with men in mind. Women now make up a far greater proportion of astronauts than they did in the past.
“The current spacesuit, there are just a few sizes,” Diaz Artiles told Grid. “Some small female astronauts particularly have had lots of issues.”