One Small Step... For the Future of Spacesuits
Jean Shrimpton for Harpers Bazaar. Source: Richard Avedon
When most people think of space, aside from stars and planets, they will generally think of astronauts in bulky white spacesuits floating in space. Spacesuits aren't only an important cultural icon, but also serve as a critical life-support system so that humans can survive in the vastness of space.
Astronauts deal with radiation, dust, and extreme temperatures, not to mention a distinct lack of breathable air. A spacesuit provides them with the necessary protection against the above elements. Spacesuits are essentially a fully functional spacecraft scaled down to support one human.
For the upcoming Artemis missions, the extravehicular unit suits are called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU for short, will be used in conjunction with the survival suit, designed to be used on board the spacecraft for launch and re-entry. Although these spacesuits seem to closely resemble Apollo era spacesuits, they are much more advanced.
The research done into the lunar environment since the early Apollo days can easily be seen after taking a look further into the prototypes of the suits. In the 1950s, scientists were worried that the lunar surface would not be able to handle the weight of a lunar landing module, let alone an astronaut, whereas space suits now have dust-tolerant features to protect astronauts against the glass shard like soil of the lunar surface.
The xEMU technology can also be built upon for future missions to Mars. Additional work will still be required to adapt suits for situations for the larger Marian gravity force, as well as the Martian atmosphere, comprised of 95% carbon dioxide and about 100 times thinner than Earth's. This thin atmosphere means that there's very little air pressure, so liquids rapidly evaporate to gas. An unprotected human's blood will boil on Mars, regardless of the freezing temperatures. There's also another major piece of news regarding these new space suits.
Orion survival suit for entry and re-entry (L) and xEMU for moonwalking (R). Source: UKAM
Up until recently, new space suits were a struggle for NASA to acquire, due to the cost of maintaining various sizes of components. This issue came glaringly to light when the first all female spacewalk had to be postponed until October 2019, due to not having enough suits to fit women.
The problem was that NASA originally believed that women were able to fit into scaled down versions of men's suits, but hadn't taken into account that women have completely different proportions to men. Hip and shoulder proportions are different between men and women, and a perfect fit was impossible due to compromising one measurement to ensure another area fit well. Incorrect fits like this cause discomfort and injuries for women in space.
"As a woman, doing space walks is more challenging," Peggy Whitson, a NASA astronaut who helped build the ISS said in an interview, "mostly because the suits are sized bigger than the average female."
Although different spacesuit components technically have different sizes available, there were still problems, especially as NASA reduced its collection of space suits as its budget decreased during the Space Shuttle era. There was even a point when NASA would only hire astronauts who fit into men's sizes medium and large! Due to budgetary restrictions and policy changes, the space industry has hesitated in upgrading the current range of suits. However, with the brand new Artemis era suits, the time has come for space to become more inclusive.
The new spacesuit design has sizing to accommodate a variety of people, as “we want every person who dreams of going into space to be able to say to themselves, that yes, they have that opportunity,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine remarked. With such a large push in the space sector for inclusivity, releasing inclusive space suits is a step in the right direction to opening this sector up to a broader range of talented individuals.
The primary functions of a spacesuit. Source: NASA
Some of the main xEMU spacesuit features are:
‣ Duplication of essential portable life system features to prevent failure
‣ Upgradable portable life system that allow components to be swapped out in favour of updated ones
‣ Increased range of movement of the pressure suit, allowing astronauts to bend their joints
‣ Multiple embedded microphones in the helmet for communications, to eliminate the need for an astronaut "snoopy cap".
‣ Rear entry hatch into the suit to increase the shoulder fit, as well as providing an easier entry into the suit
‣ Interchangeable parts so the suit can be upgraded as technology changes, as well as to suit environments other than the moon
‣ The pants and boots will accommodate mobility in partial gravity, as astronauts will be walking/driving on the lunar surface
‣ A quick-swap visor function that will protect the pressurised bubble from wear and tear, eliminating the need for entire helmets to be sent back to Earth for repairs
‣ Lighter and stronger helmet material
‣ Suit made from a flame resistant material
‣ A dust resistant system, to prevent lunar dust from getting into important electronics
Since the early days of space travel, technology has vastly improved to the point where NASA can now create 3D animated models of suits through having astronauts perform basic motions and postures as expected during EMU operation. This means that an astronaut can be matched to a custom fitted space suit that will allow them the best range of motion.
These prototypes will be tested in zero-gravity laboratories to mimic the lunar environment, as well as on the International Space Station. Then, they will hopefully be in use by the time the Artemis III flight for the first lunar landing since 1972. In the future, NASA engineers such as Chris Hansen, hope that the private sector will continue to develop these suits.
"We want them to innovate. We want them to find out how to build our suits cheaper, faster, and provide those suits to commercial entities.”
Astronauts will be heading to the moon, and beyond, with the latest and greatest space technology available. This will hopefully lead to many exciting discoveries in the future, and lead to a new age of space exploration with an even more diverse set of individuals.
As Jim Bridenstone perfectly puts it,"the goal here is to expand humanity further into space than ever before." Ad astra!