After more than 50 years of white, bulky spacesuits, NASA’s astronauts are getting an upgrade — a new suit that’s more nimble, comfortable and designed to fit a broader array of body types.
But it’s hard to tell exactly what they’ll look like. At an unveiling event in Houston Wednesday the suits were covered with a protective layer that the manufacturer, Axiom Space, said was to guard its proprietary secrets.
“This is going to be such a much more flexible suit, and the range of motion is really going to improve the astronauts’ ability to do all the tasks that they’re going to do while they’re out exploring on the lunar surface,” said Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who is preparing for a private flight with Axiom to the International Space Station later this year.
As modeled Wednesday, the suit prototype was a sci-fi sleek grayish black, with hints of orange and blue, with an Axiom logo front and center — a more modern version of the bland, all-white spacesuits of the past. But the black suit was just for show. When the astronauts actually wear the suits on the lunar surface, they’ll be white because they have to be: white reflects more sunlight, an important feature on the moon’s airless surface.
The veiled unveiling is a function of the new direction NASA has headed over the past decade, as it relies further on private industry, which guards its secrets fiercely from competitors. The growing commercial space sector is taking over all sorts of tasks once performed by the government: including flying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station; building commercial stations to replace the ISS; constructing the spacecraft that would ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface; and, yes, even designing the spacesuits they would wear there.
The shift to the private sector has saved the space agency money and allowed it move faster. But unlike the government, which is focused on the common good and accountable to taxpayers, private companies are not as transparent.
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NASA had initially attempted to build its own spacesuits. It spent 14 years on the project, and, according to a withering report from the NASA Office of Inspector General, consolidated two suits designs into a single program in 2016 after already spending $200 million on the program.
NASA eventually gave up and last year awarded two contracts, to Axiom Space and a team led by Collins Aerospace, which now compete to build the spacesuits for NASA’s lunar missions as part of its Artemis program. In all, the program could be worth as much as $3.5 billion. Axiom, which is based in Houston, won the first round, a contract worth $228.5 million. It was a prestigious victory that means its suits will be worn on the Artemis III mission, the first to return astronauts to the lunar surface since Apollo 17. That mission is scheduled for late 2025 but could slip to later.
NASA hasn’t developed new spacesuits in 40 years, since it built the ones designed for spacewalks outside the space shuttle that are now used by astronauts on the space station. Those suits are not only old, but they don’t fit all body types. In 2019, NASA astronaut Anne McClain did not go on what would have been the first all-female spacewalk outside the space station after deciding that the spacesuit was too large for her. That touched off a wave of criticism that NASA wasn’t accommodating its female astronauts in a program that had long been dominated by men.
NASA has said that the Artemis missions would fly the first woman and first person of color to the moon, and it has said the next-generation of spacesuits would fit women in the 5th percentile for size as well as men in the 95th percentile.
“When that first woman steps down on the surface of the moon on Artemis III, she’s going to be wearing an Axiom space
suit,” Bob Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator, said during the event.
In addition to developing the suits, Axiom has commissioned a series of flights to the ISS, in which private astronauts pay to fly alongside a former NASA astronaut and spend about a week on the orbiting laboratory. It is also building a commercial space station of its own in low Earth orbit that it hopes would eventually replace the aging ISS.
The Axiom suit will have a series of upgrades allowing astronauts more mobility than with the current suits. They’ll also have high-definition cameras mounted to the helmet to record their moon walks. And they’re designed to protect against the extreme temperatures found at the moon’s south pole, the region NASA wants to explore as part of its Artemis program.
“This is a great example of what innovation can do,” said Whitson, the former NASA astronaut.