NASA is hyper focused on sending people to the lunar surface in 2024, and those astronauts need space suits to get the job done – suits that the space agency currently does not have. Now a company, with decades of experience in making space suits for NASA, says it has an ensemble that could be ready by the agency's ambitious deadline.
Last week Collins Aerospace unveiled a prototype of the Next Generation Space Suit system that could be used for moon surface excursions. On Thursday, July 25, a model demonstrated the ease of walking in the suit by trotting in the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC and climbing a few steps up and down. The company claims that the suit weighs about half the original space suit from Apollo. It is also believed to be much more flexible, suitable for a wide range of body types, from small moon walkers to those more than six feet long.
Collins Aerospace has a history in building space suits for NASA. The company worked with their long-term partner ILC Dover to build both the suits and associated life support systems currently used by astronauts on the international space station ISS. Now the two companies want to show NASA that they have something that the agency can also use for their Moon-bound Artemis program.
"We have had preliminary discussions with (NASA)," says Allen Flynt, vice president and general manager of room systems at Collins Aerospace. The edge. "They are aware that we have been working on this. The approach we are following is that we are not competing with NASA. We want to support them."
With NASA's strong urge to go back to the moon, there is much skepticism that the agency can deliver all the crucial hardware it needs within the next five years. NASA is very outspoken about the rocket, lander and space station that it must develop by 2024 to achieve this goal. But details about the space suits are scarce and there was a concern that these outfits would not be ready in time for the Artemis astronauts to cross the lunar surface by 2024.
Before NASA solidified the Artemis program, a report from NASA's Inspector General revealed that the space agency was facing challenges in developing new space suits for future deep space missions. Part of the problem stems from the fact that NASA did not quite know where it was sending people. Now it is very clear that NASA is going to the moon – fast – and the agency should start with new moon suits as soon as possible.
Only recently did NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine unveil NASA's preliminary plans for the development of suits, and said the agency hopes to test parts of their space suits on the ISS as early as 2020. And he wants the suits to work in multiple locations. "We are looking at a space suit architecture that is flexible, one that can be used in a low orbit around the earth and on the moon," Bridenstine testified before the Senate Committee on July 17.
Collins claims that his suit fits that bill, because the outfit can be adjusted for any location in the room. “You can replace components in the suit, such as the arms and legs to make it more mobile. And that depends on the destination, "says Flynt.
In a micro-gravity environment, such as that of the international space station ISS, there is not much need for a suit to bend at the waist and have mobile legs. Micro-gravity suits can also afford to be a little heavier because astronauts do not have to carry weight on their shoulders. But on the moon, mobility of the lower body is clearly crucial, as astronauts have to walk to the surface and bend over to take samples. And even though the moon has the gravity of a sixth earth, Moon walkers will certainly feel the weight of a space suit more than if they were in micro gravity.
The Next Generation Space Suit system probably has all the mobility required for a lunar environment in a relatively lightweight frame. A switch box on the chest that contains the electronics for the suit is much smaller than previous colors. Anyone wearing the suit can also turn in the hip, something that the Apollo astronauts did not have. That limited the way they could walk on the moon and it made it harder to straighten themselves when they fell. "You would see the (Apollo) crews jump and jump on the surface of the moon, which poses a significant risk," says Dan Burbank, a senior technology fellow at Collins Aerospace and a retired NASA astronaut. The edge. "This is built in to have the accommodation to enable that natural outpatient walk, which we believe is critical mobility."
There is flexibility in it Who can use the suit. The Apollo suits were tailor-made for each crew member, but Collins says that this suit can be reworked to fit as many body types as possible. This type of accommodation is currently not fully available on the ISS. NASA recently had to postpone its first fully feminine space walk when it turned out that the desk did not have the right colors available at the station. "We don't have a small or extra small size, so there is, for example, a fairly wide range of smaller female crew members who can't adjust well to the space suits that we have now," says Burbank. "The innovation here in this suit is that it has a hybrid design in the upper part of the hull, so that two basic designs are suitable for the first to 99th percentile – the widest possible range."
The costs of the Collins space suit have not been made public and Flynt will only say that it is a "very competitive price". At the moment, the company focuses solely on demonstrating the technology. "We need approximately one year of additional development to refine the packaging and some of the technologies and the portable life support system," says Burbank. The plan is to build a fully functional system within the next 12 to 18 months.
Whether that is enough to attract NASA's attention remains to be seen, but Collins remains hopeful.
"We think this gives us a good head start on what would be a long way from a clean sheet of paper," says Burbank. "To build a space suit, you build a human-shaped spaceship."
Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge