NASA’s spacesuits are getting a much-needed upgrade after 50 years. The new suit is expected to be more comfortable and fit a broader range of body types.
However, details about the new suits were limited during an unveiling event in Houston because the manufacturer, Axiom Space, covered them with a protective layer to guard its proprietary secrets.
Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, who is preparing for a private flight with Axiom to the International Space Station later this year, said that the new suit would be much more flexible, and the range of motion would significantly improve the astronauts’ ability to perform tasks while exploring on the lunar surface.
The prototype suit revealed at the event was sci-fi, sleek grayish-black, with hints of orange and blue, and had an Axiom logo front and center, a modern version of the all-white spacesuits of the past. However, the actual suits the astronauts wear on the lunar surface will be white because they must be. White reflects more sunlight, essential on the moon’s airless surface. The suit is also designed to protect astronauts from extremely high temperatures.
The unveiling event highlighted the new direction that NASA has taken in the past decade as it relies more on private industry, which fiercely guards its secrets against competitors. The growing commercial space sector is taking over tasks once performed by the government, including flying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, building commercial stations to replace the ISS, constructing spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface, and designing the spacesuits they will wear there.
NASA initially attempted to build its spacesuits but gave up after spending 14 years and $200 million on the project. Last year, it awarded two contracts to Axiom Space and a team led by Collins Aerospace, which now competes to build the spacesuits for NASA’s lunar missions as part of its Artemis program, a project that could be worth as much as $3.5 billion.
Axiom Space won the first round, a contract worth $228.5 million, and its suits will be worn on the Artemis III mission, the first to return astronauts to the lunar surface since Apollo 17, scheduled for late 2025 but could slip to later.
The Artemis missions will fly the first woman and first person of color to the moon, and the next generation of spacesuits will fit women in the fifth percentile for size and men in the 95th percentile. According to Bob Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator, when the first woman steps down on the moon’s surface on Artemis III, she will be wearing an Axiom space suit.
Axiom is also developing a series of flights to the ISS where private astronauts pay to fly alongside a former NASA astronaut and spend about a week on the orbiting laboratory. Additionally, it is building a commercial space station of its own in low Earth orbit that it hopes will eventually replace the aging ISS.
The Axiom suit will have upgrades that allow astronauts more mobility than with the current suits. They will also have high-definition cameras mounted to the helmet to record their moonwalks. In addition, the suit is designed to protect against the extreme temperatures found at the moon’s south pole, which NASA wants to explore as part of its Artemis program.
Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson said that the new spacesuit is a great example of what innovation can do. The shift to the private sector has saved the space agency money and allowed it to move faster. However, unlike the government, private companies are not as transparent, and the veil of secrecy around the suits is just one example of how private industry operates.