Axios Space

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July 23, 2019

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  • Heads-up: Every quarter Axios journalists highlight the trends they're watching in politics, energy, science, technology, business and more. As a subscriber to this newsletter, you'll see that in your inbox from Mike Allen on Saturday. 

1 big thing: NASA needs a new spacesuit

Illustration of an astronaut without a suit on the moon

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 in order 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 of 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 is aiming 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.

2. There's fashion in space, too

A person in a spacesuit touching a tablet in a space capsule

NASA astronaut Suni Williams in a SpaceX spacesuit. Photo: SpaceX

Spacesuit design is focused on function over form, but aesthetics can still play a role.

The big picture: "The design issue is always something that people don't really talk about, when they're talking about spacesuits," Cathy Lewis, the Smithsonian's spacesuit curator, told Axios. "They think they're completely functional, but in any sort of design environment, there are aesthetic choices."

  • Lewis pointed to the silver Mercury spacesuits as a look that defined astronauts as a new kind of test pilot in part thanks to their striking style.

Today, private companies are also showing off their unique styles through spacesuit design.

  • SpaceX has a sleek, trimmed down look to its spacesuit, while Boeing's has a more traditional style. Both will be used by NASA when the companies start flying astronauts to the International Space Station for the agency.
  • The prototype BioSuit from MIT looks more like a jumpsuit than a spacesuit, and it's meant to eventually be used to explore planetary surfaces like Mars.

Go deeper: How to dress for space (Washington Post)

3. Keep an eye on Blue Origin

A rocket with engine started about to lift off from the pad

The New Shepard rocket at launch. Photo: Blue Origin

Blue Origin is a few test flights away from flying people to suborbital space by the end of the year, CEO Bob Smith told Axios.

Why it matters: If the Jeff Bezos-founded company does manage to get humans flying to the edge of space aboard its New Shepard system before the end of the year, it makes the company a major player in the suborbital game.

  • Blue Origin is focused on making access to space cheaper and easier. The New Shepard, which targets tourism, is one element of that.

Details: Blue Origin’s last New Shepard test occurred on May 2, marking the 11th successful flight of the system and 5th flight for that particular rocket and booster.

  • “We’re still focused on getting the vehicle ready to go fly humans on it, and we’re still pushing to get that done by the end of the year,” Smith said.
  • “That calendar year is coming up closer and closer, so we’ve got to get [a few] more flights in this year before we put people on it.”
  • Smith also said the company has yet to set a price per seat for a ride on the rocket.

The big picture: Instead of just focusing on one element of the space business, Blue Origin has a variety of different projects in the works, including its Blue Moon lander — designed to bring cargo and one day people to the lunar surface — and large New Glenn rocket.

  • Bezos reportedly sells off about $1 billion in Amazon stock each year to fund Blue Origin, and the company is now fighting hard to break into the lucrative national security launch business.
  • Blue Origin isn’t the only suborbital game in town, with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic also planning to fly its first customers in the coming year or two.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Bob Smith said the company would fly a few test flights before the end of the year rather than two flights.

4. TESS lives on

Model: NASA; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios
Model: NASA; Graphic: Harry Stevens/Axios

Last week, NASA extended the life of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite for 2 more years, through at least 2022.

Why it matters: TESS is tasked with searching for relatively small worlds around cool stars not far from our own, and it’s expected to find dozens of them during its life in space.

  • Scientists have found more than 4,000 confirmed exoplanets, with 21 of those thanks to TESS.
  • While researchers don’t yet have the technology to a figure out whether a world is Earth-like, the planets TESS finds could be good candidates for follow-up observations from future spacecraft that can answer that question.

Details: TESS is just at the end of the first year of its primary mission. In that time, the telescope discovered a variety of planets, including one that’s only about 80% the size of Earth.

  • For the telescope's next act, the satellite is expected to take a look at some areas already seen and observe the ecliptic, the part of the sky covered by the Sun’s path throughout the year, TESS scientist Sara Seager told Axios via email.
  • TESS finds its planets by waiting for a world to pass in front of its star from Earth’s perspective. When that planet transits across the star, TESS can detect the small dip in light it causes, allowing scientists on Earth to learn more about its characteristics.

Go deeper: Explore the interactive TESS graphic

5. Out of this world reading list

Illustration of an astronaut badge depicting a factory on the moon, the words "A NEW AGE" are on the badge.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

NASA legend Christopher Kraft dies at 95 (Robert D. McFadden, New York Times)

The Milky Way devoured another galaxy and we've spotted the remains (Leah Crane, New Scientist)

Hawaiians protest the construction of a telescope on Mauna Kea (Dakin Andone, Sarah Jorgensen and Polo Sandoval, CNN)

India successfully launches Chandrayaan-2 (Times of India)

Special report: Factory Moon (Axios)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: A panorama on the Moon

A cropper panorama of the Moon during Apollo 12.

Photo: NASA

Let's take a moment to appreciate another Apollo mission.

  • A lone Apollo 12 astronaut — Alan Bean — stands on the surface of the Moon in this small part of a panorama released in honor of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.
  • The full image reveals the stark nature of life on the Moon. Bean looks tiny by comparison to the lunar lander and the grey environment surrounding him.

During Apollo 12 — which flew in November 1969 — Bean and fellow astronaut Pete Conrad were on the surface of the Moon for about 31 hours and went on moonwalks for about 8 hours, according to NASA.

Go deeper: Check out our Deep Dive about the Moon if you missed it Saturday.

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