As NASA’s Artemis program continues working toward landing humans on the moon for the first time in decades, most of the focus is on the vehicles that will get them there. That’s only one part of the engineering necessary to return us to the moon. NASA also needs a new generation of spacesuits, and it has turned to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace to build them. This is a change from the previously planned xEMU program, but NASA isn’t making the companies start from scratch.
The current NASA spacesuit design has persisted for 40 years, and it’s getting long in the tooth and would not be reliable on the lunar surface. For the past decade, the agency has been conducting research, and planning ways it could replace those suits. Until earlier this year, the xEMU program was the prime solution, calling for NASA to build six suits and then contract companies to build more. With the awarding of this contract, NASA has shifted its industry partners to the forefront.
NASA will hand off what it has learned from the xEMU program to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace. Under the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) program, NASA will fund the development of suits at the companies and will contract with them for construction and maintenance through 2034. The total value of the arrangement is capped at $3.5 billion.
The suits, which will be capable of extravehicular activities (EVAs) at the space station and strolling on the lunar surface, could be ready for testing as soon as 2025. One of the non-negotiable requirements for the xEVAS suits is that they fit astronauts of all sizes and genders. The limited fit of current suits has been a problem on the ISS — NASA had to delay the first all-female spacewalk in 2019 because there weren’t enough suits that fit the crew. The new suits will have to fit a woman in the 5th percentile all the way up to a man in the 95th percentile.
Congratulations to Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace for being selected to move forward with their spacesuit design, which will unlock new capabilities for missions to the @Space_Station, @NASAArtemis missions to the Moon, and eventually missions to Mars. https://t.co/UDL3x7omVs pic.twitter.com/IppfBZoLXl
— NASA (@NASA) June 1, 2022
NASA is still working toward launching Artemis I, which will be the first real-world test of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. After numerous delays, it’s unclear when the SLS will finally lift off. Humans won’t return to the moon’s surface until Artemis III, which is currently on the books for 2025. The NASA inspector general last year said the date was likely going to be pushed to 2026 or later, thanks to delays with the SLS and new space suits. Now, at least, NASA is making progress on the latter, but the 2025 time frame is still in doubt.