With the successful conclusion of the Artemis I mission, NASA has taken a big step toward returning humans to the Moon. But a big rocket and a deep-space capable capsule are only the beginning of the new technologies needed for lunar surface operations.
Most notably, there’s the lander. Much attention has been given to this component of the program, especially after NASA selected SpaceX’s large Starship vehicle to fulfill that role in April 2021. Starship will rendezvous with the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit and ferry astronauts down to and up from the Moon. With Orion and the Space Launch System rocket having completed a critical flight test, Starship is now on the clock as NASA works toward a lunar landing later this decade.
But just as astronauts cannot go down to the Moon without Starship, they also cannot go outside on the lunar surface without new spacesuits.
In June, NASA announced that it would partner with two industry groups, one led by Axiom Space and another by Collins Aerospace, to develop spacesuits for both the Moon and spacewalking in low-Earth orbit. In September, the space agency said that Axiom would develop Artemis Moonwalking suits. Last week, NASA said Collins would develop suits for the International Space Station and other in-space applications.
These will be NASA’s first new spacesuits in decades, and as they are mini-spacecraft, the new suits are complex machines. The spacesuit design must include life support, pressure garments, avionics, and more in a self-contained unit. Developing a suit for the lunar environment will be especially challenging because it has not been done for five decades, and the Apollo astronauts had to contend with a lot of gritty dust on the lunar surface.
To get a sense of how this work is progressing, Ars recently spoke with Chris Hansen, who is the deputy program manager for spacesuits and lunar vehicles for NASA.
“We think they’re doing great,” Hansen said of Axiom and Collins. “These companies are so motivated and excited about these projects, they have invested a lot of their own money into the suits.”
Each company has been able to fully leverage the design and research that NASA put into the internal development of a next-generation spacesuit known as “xEMU.” NASA invested $420 million into this research and development effort over more than a decade. “They’ve been able to use it heavily in their designs,” Hansen said of the companies and the xEMU prototype.
NASA has set a target for the Artemis III mission to land two humans on the Moon by 2025. While that doesn’t seem reasonable—Artemis II will more likely fly a crew around the Moon that year, setting up Artemis III later this decade—Hansen said Axiom is still working toward that goal.
To that end, the company is scheduled to deliver two flight-ready suits to NASA by mid- or late 2025, Hansen said. While Axiom will be required to demonstrate the suits in a flight-like environment, most likely a pressure chamber on Earth, its first flight test will likely occur on the Moon.
“Artemis III will be the demonstration mission,” Hansen said. “We’re holding our contractors to their time schedules. I’m very confident that they’ll make these schedules that we’re talking about.”