When NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to clamber around on the outside of the orbiting facility for maintenance or repairs, they don a spacesuit known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). Essentially a small self-contained spacecraft in its own right, the bulky garment was introduced in 1981 to allow Space Shuttle crews to exit the Orbiter and work in the craft’s cavernous cargo bay. While the suits did get a minor upgrade in the late 90s, they remain largely the product of 1970s technology.
Not only are the existing EMUs outdated, but they were only designed to be use in space — not on the surface. With NASA’s eyes on the Moon, and eventually Mars, it was no secret that the agency would need to outfit their astronauts with upgraded and modernized suits before moving beyond the ISS. As such, development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) dates back to at least 2005 when it was part of the ultimately canceled Constellation program.
Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and reportedly $420 million in development costs, the xEMU still isn’t ready. With a crewed landing on the Moon still tentatively scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their commercial partners take a swing at the problem, and has recently awarded contracts to two companies for a spacesuit that can both work on the Moon and replace the aging EMU for orbital use on the ISS.
As part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, both companies will be given the data collected during the development of the xEMU, though they are expected to create new designs rather than a copy of what NASA’s already been working on. Inspired by the success of the Commercial Crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the contract also stipulates that the companies will retain complete ownership and control over the spacesuits developed during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging the companies to seek out additional commercial customers for the finished suits in hopes a competitive market will help drive down costs.
There’s no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial providers has paid off for cargo and crew, so it stands to reason that they’d go back to the well for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There’s also plenty of incentive for the companies to deliver a viable product, as the contact has a potential maximum value of $3.5 billion. But with 2025 quickly approaching, and the contact requiring a orbital shakedown test before the suits are sent to the Moon, the big question is whether or not there’s still enough time for either company to make it across the finish line.
Beyond the fact that Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez was called in to develop its distinctively superhero look, SpaceX hasn’t released a lot of public information about their high-tech spacesuit. But thanks to Japanese astronaut [Soichi Noguchi], Mission Specialist on the first operational Crew Dragon flight and a current occupant of the International Space Station, we now have a guided tour of the futuristic garment. The fact that it was recorded in space is just an added bonus.
As it was released on his personal YouTube account and isn’t an official NASA production, the video is entirely in Japanese, though most of it can be understood from context. You can try turning on the automatic English translations, but unfortunately they seem to be struggling pretty hard on this video. For example as [Soichi] demonstrates the suit’s helmet, the captions read “A cat that is said to have been designed using a 3D printer.” Thanks, Google.
Still, this video provides us with the most information we’ve ever had about how astronauts store, wear, and operate the suit. [Soichi] starts by showing off the personalized bags that the suits are kept in and then explains how the one-piece suit opens on the bottom so the wearer can pull it on over their head. He also points out the three layers the suit is made of: a Teflon-coated outer shell, a fiber-reinforced core for strength, and an inner airtight garment.
Little details are hidden all over the suit, such as a track built into the heel of the boot that’s used to restrain the astronaut’s feet to the Crew Dragon’s seats. [Soichi] also provides what appears to be the first public view of the umbilical connector on the suit. Hidden under a removable cover, the connector features 14-pins for data and power, a wide port for air circulation, and smaller high-pressure port for nitrox that would presumably be used to inflate the suit should the cabin lose pressure while in flight.
It’s sad that nearly half a century after the achievements of the Apollo program we’re still arguing with a certain subset of people who insist it never happened. Poring through the historical record looking for evidence that proves the missions couldn’t possibly have occurred has become a sad little cottage industry, and debunking the deniers is a distasteful but necessary ongoing effort.
One particularly desperate denier theory holds that fully spacesuited astronauts could never have exited the tiny hatch of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). [AstronomyLive] fought back at this tendentious claim in a clever way — with a DIY LIDAR scanner to measure Apollo artifacts in museums. The hardware is straightforward, with a Garmin LIDAR-Lite V3 scanner mounted on a couple of servos to make a quick pan-tilt head. The rig has a decidedly compliant look to it, with the sensor flopping around a bit as the servos move. But for the purpose, it seems perfectly fine.
[AstronomyLive] took the scanner to two separate museum exhibits, one to scan a LEM hatch and one to scan the suit Gene Cernan, the last man to stand on the Moon so far, wore while training for Apollo 17. With the LEM flying from the rafters, the scanner was somewhat stretching its abilities, so the point clouds he captured were a little on the low-res side. But in the end, a virtual Cernan was able to transition through the virtual LEM hatch, as expected.
Sadly, such evidence will only ever be convincing to those who need no convincing; the willfully ignorant will always find ways to justify their position. So let’s just celebrate the achievements of Apollo.