New Moon Suit for NASA’s Artemis Astronauts Unveiled
Axiom Space is building the new spacesuits in a commercial partnership similar to the one between the space agency and SpaceX.
In space, moon suits are the height of fashion, and NASA officials on Wednesday lavished praise on what astronauts will be wearing when they step on the moon in the coming years.
“We’re developing a spacesuit for a new generation,” Robert D. Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator, said during an event in Houston unveiling the new suit.
The latest in lunar space wear — black with orange and blue highlights — comes from Axiom Space in Houston.
By turning to this private company, NASA is again relying on new commercial space enterprises to provide key components faster and cheaper than it could itself develop.
The approach follows the template NASA used in hiring Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and to the lunar surface on the mission for which the Axiom suits were designed.
The moon suit is a key component that is required for the Artemis program, which will be sending astronauts back to the moon as NASA faces heightened competition in space and on the moon from China’s booming space sector. The Axiom suits will be worn during the Artemis III mission, the program’s first moon landing, which is scheduled for 2025.
During Wednesday’s reveal on a stage at Space Center Houston, James Stein, the suit’s chief engineer, demonstrated the lunar gear, showing how he could easily squat and move around. The large clear bubble around the head provides wide visibility as well as lighting, which will be important when astronauts step into shadowed craters near the lunar south pole, where NASA hopes to study water ice at the bottom of cold, shadowed craters. It also has a mount for a high-definition camera.
Astronauts will get into and out of the spacesuit via a hatch in the backside.
“You would put your feet in, put your arms in and then kind of shimmy down into the suit,” said Russell Ralston, deputy program manager for extravehicular activity at Axiom Space. “And then we would close the hatch.”
On the back is a backpack-like contraption containing the life support system. “You can think of it as a very fancy scuba tank and air-conditioner, kind of combined into one,” Mr. Ralston said.
But the prototype shown Wednesday was not exactly what will be going to the moon. For one, the actual suits will be white instead of dark, reflecting heat from sunlight instead of absorbing it. In addition, the current outer covering keeps the inner portions from being scuffed or damaged during ground testing. For the moon, the suit will have an outer insulation layer to protect the astronaut from extreme temperatures, radiation and dust.
Axiom is led by Michael Suffredini, who previously served as NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station. The company has been primarily focused on low-Earth orbit, sending private astronauts to the I.S.S. and building a private module to be added to the space station. A variation of the moon suit could be used on a future Axiom private space station for spacewalks.
Outsourcing the development of spacesuits is a major course correction for NASA, which spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing its own suit called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. The xEMU suits were to serve both for the upcoming moon missions and as replacements for the aging suits used for spacewalks at the International Space Station.
“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 space station,” said Vanessa Wyche, director of the NASA Johnson Space Center, the home base for NASA astronauts. “So 40 years we’ve been using the same suit based on that technology.”
In 2019, NASA officials excitedly showed off a prototype of the xEMU in patriotic red, white and blue, describing how it would provide more flexibility for walking, bending and twisting.
“You remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — they bunny-hopped on the surface of the moon,” Jim Bridenstine, then NASA’s administrator, said at the 2019 event. “Well, now we’re actually going to be able to walk on the surface of the moon, which is very different than our suits in the past.”
But an audit by the NASA inspector general in August 2021 concluded that the NASA spacesuits would not be ready until April 2025 at the earliest. By the time the audit was released, NASA was already asking for ideas from the aerospace industry.
In June last year, NASA selected two companies, Axiom and Collins Aerospace, to build NASA’s future spacesuits for the moon and the I.S.S. The awards would be worth up to $3.5 billion through 2034 for the companies. Axiom and Collins were the only companies to submit completed bids for the contract.
In September, Axiom won the first installment: $228 million for the development of the moon suit.
NASA provided requirements that the moon suit needed to meet as well as access to NASA’s work and expertise with earlier spacesuits including the xEMU. Axiom will retain ownership of the suits even as NASA astronauts use them.
“Think of it more like a rental car,” said Lara Kearney, the NASA manager overseeing the spacesuit program. “So Axiom will be providing the hardware for both training and for flight. They will bring that hardware in, and we, NASA, will utilize it and operate it on the surface of the moon for our moonwalking.”
Axiom officials said about one-half of their design is based on the xEMU. That includes the boots, helmet bubble and upper torso. “NASA put a tremendous amount of effort into designing that hard upper torso,” Mr. Ralston said. “We’ve tweaked a couple of minor details, but in large part that’s something that was a direct transfer.”
Axiom turned to experts in the automotive, oil and gas, and theater industries for innovations to add to the design. The pressure suit — the part that keeps air from leaking into space — and the gloves are two examples of components designed by Axiom engineers, said Mark Greeley, program manager for extravehicular activity at Axiom.
The new suits will also fit more people than current spacesuits do.
“We have different sizes of elements that we can swap out — a medium, large and small, if you will — for different components,” Mr. Ralston said. “But 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 or things like that.”
NASA maintains that it remains on track for a moon landing in 2025. The Biden administration is asking for more than $27 billion for NASA next year, a 7 percent increase, and that includes a sizable boost for Artemis.
The first Artemis mission, Artemis I, launched with no crew aboard in November, testing the Orion capsule that will carry astronauts to lunar orbit and back to Earth. The mission was a success, although not a perfect one. Orion’s heat shield performed well enough to protect the spacecraft as it re-entered the atmosphere, but not as well as designed.
“We had more liberation of the charred material during re-entry before we landed than we had expected,” Howard Hu, manager of the Orion program at NASA, said during a news conference last week.
The Artemis II mission, scheduled for next year, will carry astronauts for the first time: three Americans and a Canadian. That crew will stay in the capsule and will not need moon suits. NASA plans to announce the Artemis II crew on April 3.
NASA has said that at least one of the two astronauts who will walk on the moon during Artemis III will be a woman.
“When that first woman steps down on the surface of the moon on Artemis III,” Mr. Cabana, the NASA associate administrator, said on Wednesday, “she’s going to be wearing an Axiom spacesuit.”