NASA is hyper focused on sending humans to the lunar surface by 2024, and those astronauts are going to need space suits to pull off the job — suits that the space agency currently doesn’t have. Now one company, with decades of experience 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 which could be used for excursions on the surface of the Moon. On Thursday, July 25th, a model demonstrated the ease of walking in the suit by trotting around the lobby of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC and climbing up and down a few steps. The company claims that the suit is about half the weight of the original Apollo space suits. It’s supposed to be much more flexible, too, capable of fitting a wide range of body types from small Moon walkers to those well over six feet tall.
Collins Aerospace has a history of building space suits for NASA. The company collaborated with their longtime partner ILC Dover to build both the suits and attached life support systems currently used by astronauts on the International Space Station. Now the two companies want to show NASA that they have something the agency can use for their Moon-bound Artemis program, as well.
“We’ve had preliminary discussions with [NASA],” Allen Flynt, vice president and general manager of space systems at Collins Aerospace, tells The Verge. “They’re aware that we’ve been working on this. The approach that we’re taking is we’re not in competition with NASA. We want to support them.”
With NASA’s big push to get back to the Moon, there has been a lot of skepticism that the agency can deliver all of the crucial hardware it needs within the next five years. NASA has been very vocal about the rocket, lander, and space station it needs to develop by 2024 to meet this goal. But details on the space suits have been scarce, and there was a concern that these outfits wouldn’t be ready in time for the Artemis astronauts to traverse the lunar surface by 2024.
Before NASA solidified the Artemis program, a report from NASA’s inspector general revealed that the space agency was running into challenges developing new space suits for future deep space missions. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that NASA didn’t quite know where it was sending people. Now, it’s very clear that NASA is going to the Moon — fast — and the agency needs to get started on new lunar suits as quickly as possible.
Only recently did NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reveal NASA’s tentative plans for suit development, saying that the agency hopes to test parts of their lunar space suits on the ISS as early as 2020. And he wants the suits to be capable of working in multiple locations. “What we’re looking at is a space suit architecture that is flexible, one that can be used both in low Earth orbit and at the Moon,” Bridenstine testified before the Senate Commerce committee on July 17th.
Collins claims its suit fits that bill, as the outfit can be modified for each location in space. “You can change out components in the suit, like the arms and legs to make it more mobile. And that is then dependent upon the destination,” says Flynt.
In a microgravity environment, such as that of the International Space Station, there isn’t as much of a need for a suit to bend at the waist and have mobile legs. Microgravity suits can also afford to be a little heavier, as astronauts don’t have to carry any weight on their shoulders. But on the Moon, lower body mobility is obviously key, as astronauts will need to walk on the surface and bend over to pick up samples. And despite the Moon having one-sixth Earth’s gravity, Moon walkers will definitely feel the weight of a space suit more than if they were in microgravity.
The Next Generation Space Suit system supposedly has all of the mobility needed for a lunar environment in a relatively lightweight frame. A control box on the chest, containing the electronics for the suit, is much smaller than previous suits. Anyone wearing the suit will also have the capability to rotate at the hip, something the Apollo astronauts didn’t have. That limited the way they could walk on the Moon and it made it more difficult to right themselves when they fell over. “You would see the [Apollo] crews skipping and hopping on the surface of the Moon, which carries some significant risk,” Dan Burbank, a senior technology fellow at Collins Aerospace and a retired NASA astronaut, tells The Verge. “This is built in to have the accommodation to allow that natural ambulatory gait, which we think is critical mobility.”
There’s flexibility in who can use the suit. The Apollo suits were custom-made for each crew member, but Collins says this suit can be reworked to fit as many body types as possible. Those kinds of accommodations aren’t fully available on the ISS right now. Recently, NASA had to delay its first all-female spacewalk when it turned out the agency didn’t have the right suits available on the station. “We don’t have a small size or an extra small size, so there is a fairly broad range of the smaller female crew members, for example, who can’t be well accommodated by the space suits we have right now,” says Burbank. “The innovation here on this suit is it’s got a hybrid design in the upper torso portion such that two basic designs will accommodate the first to 99th percentile — the broadest possible range.”
The cost of Collins’ space suit has not been made public, and Flynt will only say that it’s a “very competitive price.” Right now, the company is just focused on demonstrating the technology. “We need about 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 or not that’s enough to catch NASA’s eye remains to be seen, but Collins remains hopeful.
“We think that this gives us a good head start on what otherwise, from a clean sheet of paper, would be a fairly long path,” says Burbank. “To build a space suit, you’re building a human-shaped spacecraft.”
Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge