Jul 23, 2019

NASA needs a new spacesuit

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As NASA pushes back to the Moon, the space agency faces a major engineering challenge: building a new spacesuit in time for the 2024 deadline.

The big picture: Spacesuits are arguably an astronaut's most important tool in space. The suits are designed for a particular mission and tailored to a specific astronaut to allow him or her to work safely in a vacuum.

Details: For the Artemis mission to the Moon, NASA astronauts must have the flexibility to bend down, examine rocks and collect samples — all in one-sixth the gravity on Earth.

  • While those tasks don't sound particularly difficult, they are when contending with the bulky mass of a spacesuit that effectively acts as a human-shaped spacecraft.
  • "We want you to not have to think about the suit at all," NASA spacesuit engineer Lindsay Aitchison told Axios. "Anything you do just feels like working in your regular shirtsleeves."
  • Aitchison and the other NASA engineers working on the suit are also looking at new ways of building spacesuit parts — through 3D printing and other technologies — to make the suits more lightweight and maneuverable.

Where it stands: NASA's new suits have been in development for some time and will need to fit a variety of different bodies, as the agency aims to send the first woman to the Moon.

  • NASA plans to test parts of the new suit as early as next year on the International Space Station.
  • According to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, the spacesuits in development will also be used in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and on the Moon, presenting interesting design and engineering challenges for those building it.

“The requirements of Moon suits are more challenging than LEO alone, but the suit we use on the Moon will also meet the needs of the International Space Station with very little, if any, modifications,” Aitchison said.

Between the lines: Building a spacesuit takes hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.

  • The agency will likely need an influx of cash for the Artemis program if it wants to get the suit done and in testing any earlier than 2023, according to Bridenstine. That money would afford them wiggle room in the schedule if issues pop up.

The bottom line: NASA needs a new spacesuit for its next mission, but it's unclear if the agency will have the Congressional support it needs to deliver the suit well ahead of the 2024 deadline.

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