New astronaut spacesuits planned to be test “walked” on the ISS

NASA is slating one of its spacesuit designs for a 2023 testing on the International Space Station to determine if it will be reliable enough and if it can withstand forces in microgravity. If found satisfactory, they will be used for the space agency’s highly anticipated Artemis 2024 mission.

The spacesuit that NASA will be sending to the ISS is called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU — is designed for floating spacewalks (also known as extravehicular activities or EVAs), and not for scaling or maneuvering around a rocky, lunar surface. The engineer behind this spacesuit program says that they will test ”walk” the prototype in the ISS.

“We’ve made a lot of progress and iterated on this design, so now we have a very mature system overall,” NASA spacesuit engineer Lindsay Aitchison said September 11 during the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.

There have been previous spacesuit designs that NASA’s in-house Advanced Space Suit Project created in recent years but this EMU design seemingly has the most potential of an in-orbit testing. In November 2016, according to a 2017 NASA Office of Inspector General report, the project centered its efforts on a new generation of EVA suit, now known as the xEMU.

So far, the xEMU has gone through more than 30 runs in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory; the colossal swimming pool astronauts use to train for spacewalks, Aitchison said. 

The xEMU spacesuit else recently passed a preliminary design review, which determines that the prototype is operationally effective. The xEMU must next pass it’s development testing, which will then qualify it for the testing aboard the ISS in 2023, Aitchison said. Only if the spacesuit passes those orbital trials would it be used by astronauts  on the lunar surface in 2024.

Notably, the Artemis mission intends to send the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by 2024. That is over 50 years since Neil Armstrong first did so in NASA’s Apollo 11 mission.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, requested NASA for an expedited date that is the current 2024 deadline, which has sent the space agency to work double time to have everything prepared by then.

“NASA has actually been investing in a very methodical matter on how we’re going to do exploration spacesuit development,” Aitchison said, including implementing “lessons learned” from the ISS program. Among the changes: the xEMU suit will have a smaller display unit on the front of the suit, making it easier to fit a wider range of NASA’s astronaut population, Aitchison said.

Aside from the many factors involving the actual launch and landing on the lunar surface, NASA has also been working on improving its exploration-class (or planetary surface-based) spacesuits for more than a decade. Apparently, the old spacesuit design, based on the one used during the iconic Apollo 11 mission has become outdated in functionality, practicality, and even accessibility.

The issues regarding the spacesuit was recently discussed during NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) quarterly meeting at Johnson Space Center in Spetember. The group operates independently and is tasked with “evaluating NASA’s safety performance and advising the Agency on ways to improve that performance.”

One of the issues raised was that NASA is taking a long time to develop and test the spacesuits that astronauts will use in space.

Sandra ”Sandy” Magnus Magnus, who flew to the International Space Station (ISS) twice and has spent more than five months in orbit, said during the panel: ”An integral system required to put boots on the moon are the boots.”

She added that spacesuits are essentially “one-person spaceships” that deserve similar levels of funding and scrutiny.

“They’re complex and they have stringent safety requirements, and are a critical component of not only the lunar program, but actually any potential exploration path that human spaceflight may engage upon in the future,” Magnus said.

Significantly, the space suits that NASA uses right now are operational EVA spacesuits on the ISS that are designs aging 40 years old. Their parts have proven increasingly difficult to refurbish since the 2011 retirement of the space shuttle program, which could easily transport suits to and from Earth.

In March, NASA backed away from plans to run the first all-female spacewalk because there were not enough EMU spacesuits immediately available on the ISS that would be able to fit women’s body sizes. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House science committee that future spacesuit designs would better accommodate the range of sizes the astronaut population requires.

This new xEMU spacesuit design is NASA’s potential answer to all the issues surrounding the currently used one’s aboard the ISS.

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