Axiom Space revealed its new Moon suit yesterday during an event held at NASA’s Space Centre Houston. It’s the first Moon-specific suit since the Apollo era and a key component of NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the Moon later this decade. Here’s what we learned about the new suit, dubbed AxEMU.
Axiom Space chief engineer Jim Stein walked onto the stage yesterday wearing the suit, and I’ll admit to being impressed. The dark grey coverings aside, I felt that this was the suit I needed to see — something discernibly 21st century and even a bit sci-fi.
Where we’re coming from
It’s been half a century since the Apollo missions, but NASA has once again set its sights on the Moon. Naturally, the space agency isn’t interested in dredging up the old Apollo Moon suit design, even if it was revolutionary. Looking ahead to the Artemis era, NASA wants an obvious improvement. Speaking yesterday at the reveal, Lara Kearney, manager of NASA’s extravehicular activity and human surface mobility program, stressed three fundamental elements for the new suit: thermal protection, improved mobility, and “stringent safety requirements.”
Not the Moon suit we were promised — and thank goodness for that
NASA has been working on this Moon suit for quite some time, in a project that’s fallen woefully behind schedule. Back in October 2019, the space agency demonstrated the in-development suit during an event at its headquarters in Washington D.C., with NASA spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis donning the clunky prototype. Looking at this sorry excuse for a Moon suit, I can honestly say that NASA did the right thing when it chose to outsource the project to private partners.
A 50/50 split in terms of design
Houston-based Axiom Space signed a $US228.5 ($317) million contract with NASA in June of last year to design, build, and test the new Moon suits and supporting systems. NASA needs the suits to be ready for its upcoming Artemis 3 mission, which is expected to land the first woman and person of colour on the Moon in late 2025.
That’s not a lot of time, but Axiom didn’t have to start the project from scratch. Speaking yesterday at the Moon suit unveiling, Axiom chief Michael Suffredini said roughly half of the the suit’s design comes from previous work done by NASA and the other half by Axiom Space and its partners. “We’re carrying on NASA’s legacy by designing an advanced spacesuit that will allow astronauts to operate safely and effectively on the Moon,” he said in an Axiom press release.
This was a partial unveiling
The most noticeable thing about the Moon suit shown yesterday was its dark grey colour highlighted by streaks of orange and blue. The suit that astronauts will wear during space missions won’t have this fabric colour and will instead be all white. “Since a spacesuit worn on the Moon must be white to reflect heat and protect astronauts from extreme high temperatures, a cover layer is currently being used for display purposes only to conceal the suit’s proprietary design,” according to Axiom Space.
As Mark Greeley, Axiom Space’s extravehicular activity program manager, told reporters yesterday, “We are in competition with Collins [Aersospace],” which is also under contract with NASA to develop space suits. I mean, I get it, but this was one of the crappier aspects of yesterday’s reveal — the fact that we didn’t get to see the cool stuff behind the hood.
Safety was a key design consideration
Known as the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or AxEMU for short, the new suit emphasises safety. Redundant components minimise single-point failures, while layers of high-tech fabrics confer enhanced thermal protection. Artemis 3 astronauts are slated to explore the lunar south pole, which features wildly fluctuating temperatures. A key reason for visiting the south polar region is to investigate permanently shadowed regions for signs of water ice — regions in which temperatures get no warmer than -250 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s Axiom’s Moon suit
To be crystal clear, this isn’t NASA’s Moon suit — it’s Axiom’s. Kearney said Axiom will retain ownership of the suits, even during the upcoming Artemis missions. What’s more, the company can even solicit commercial customers who may wish to use the suit, she said yesterday at the unveiling. “Think of it more like a rental car,” Kearney said. “Axiom will be providing the hardware for both training and for flight” and the company “will bring that hardware in, and we, NASA, will utilise it and operate it on the surface of the moon for our moonwalking.”
Flexible, as promised
Apollo astronauts were greatly constrained by their Moon suits in terms of mobility, but the same can’t be said for the Artemis generation. While demonstrating AxEMU, Axiom Space chief engineer Jim Stein was able to move around easily, performing lateral lunges and crouching to simulate a hands-on investigation of the lunar surface. “Utilising innovative soft and hard joints for an increased range of motion will enable astronauts to walk on the Moon more effortlessly, perform more precise geological and scientific tasks, and translate on space stations easier, all while maximizing comfort,” according to Axiom Space.
It’s got an awesome helmet
The helmet is truly cool, featuring bright headlights on each side — a feature that Artemis astronauts will need when navigating the dark and shadowed regions of the lunar south pole. The helmet also has a high-definition camera, so we’ll get some wild POV imagery from the mission. The large fishbowl helmet will offer a generous view of an astronaut’s surroundings and also feature disposable tear-off strips similar to those on race car windshields. Artemis astronauts will tear away these strips to quickly remove accumulating dust.
And the gloves are neat, too
Like the rest of the Moon suit, the gloves will need to keep those astro-fingers warm. At the same time, the gloves need to be flexible, allowing astronauts to conduct tasks while performing their extravehicular activities. The new glove design, Axiom claims, does both, keeping those digits safe while also enabling work with specialised tools.
These boots were made for walking
The Moon boots, like the gloves, are designed to protect the Artemis astronauts from the harsh elements. The boots posed a particular challenge, as this element of the suit is in near constant contact with the frigid lunar surface. The new suit features an unexpected accessory: a walking staff. This makes tons of sense, given how Apollo astronauts often struggled to maintain their balance during Moon walks. The staffs, I would think, should also make for good exploratory devices and for shooing away packs of lunar wolves.
This suit is meant for most types of bodies
NASA says it’s committed to landing a woman on the Moon during Artemis 3, but the space agency hasn’t always been accommodating when it comes to making sure its spacesuits are suitable or readily available for women. AxEMU is designed to “fit a broad range of crew members, accommodating at least 90 per cent of the U.S. male and female population,” according to a NASA statement. “We have different sizes of elements that we can swap out — a medium, large, and small if you will — for different components,” Russell Ralston, deputy program manager for extravehicular activity at Axiom Space, told reporters yesterday. “Then within each of those sizes, we also have an adjustability to where we can really tailor the suit to someone: the length of their leg or the length of their arm.”
It’s got a life support system in the back
The life support system, worn like a backpack, will allow for eight-hour spacewalks, which is two hours longer than NASA’s existing spacesuits. The suits feature a rigid upper torso for attaching life support systems and other equipment. Interestingly, astronauts will enter the suit via a hatch on the back, and they don’t need a partner to assist when the time comes to dress up. Axiom chose a fabric for the outer layer that provides “cut resistance, puncture resistance, thermal insulation,” among other features, Ralston said.
Diapers still required
Ralston admitted that astronauts will still need to wear diapers while inside the Moon suits. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best solutions, he said. Fair enough — NASA and Axiom are still a ways off from having Dune-like stillsuits.
The suits won’t come home
As CollectSpace reports, it’s a one-way trip for these Moon suits. During the closing phases of Artemis 3, the astronauts will return to lunar orbit aboard SpaceX’s Starship upper stage rocket, which is doubling as the lunar lander for this mission. The duo will then return to the Orion capsule for the trip home, sans the AxEMU suits, which will stay aboard Starship. Starship won’t have enough fuel to return home, so it’ll just stay in lunar orbit indefinitely, according to Greeley.
Let’s do this… eventually
NASA is targeting late 2025 for Artemis 3, which seems optimistic. The AxEMU unit shown yesterday was only a prototype; functional models still need to be built and tested outside the International Space Station. On that note, NASA also has the option to use these suits for spacewalks outside the orbital lab. In terms of other possible hurdles, SpaceX still needs to launch its Starship megarocket and prove to NASA that it’s safe and capable of landing astronauts on the Moon.
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