Last fall, NASA unveiled the new suits that Artemis astronauts will wear when they take humanity’s first steps on the lunar surface for the first time since way back in 1972. The look of the A7LB pressure suit variants that accompanied those earlier astronauts to the Moon, and later to Skylab, has since gone on to signify for many the definitive, iconic symbol of humanity’s most ambitiously-realized space dreams.
With Artemis’ 2024 launch target approaching, NASA’s original Moon suit could soon be supplanted in the minds of a new generation of space dreamers with the xEMU, the first ground-up suit made for exploring the lunar landscape since Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt took humanity’s last Moon walk (to date). Unlike those suits, the xEMU’s design is getting an assist from a source of "brain" power that simply wasn’t available back then: artificial intelligence.
Specifically, AI is reportedly crunching numbers behind the scenes to help engineer support components for the new, more versatile life support system that’ll be equipped to the xEMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suit. WIRED reports that NASA is using AI to assist the new suit’s life support system in carrying out its more vital functions while streamlining its weight, component size, and tolerances for load-bearing pressure, temperature, and the other physical demands that a trip to the Moon (and back) imposes.
Recruiting AI isn’t just about speed — though speed is definitely one of the perks to meeting NASA’s ambitious 2024 timeline and all that lies beyond. “The machine’s iterative process is 100 or 1,000 times more than we could do on our own, and it comes up with a solution that is ideally optimized within our constraints,” Jesse Craft, a senior design engineer at a Texas-based contractor working on the upgraded version of the xEMU suit, told WIRED.
But in some instances, AI even raises the bar for quality, as Craft also noted. “We’re using AI to inspire design,” he explained. “We have biases for right angles, flat surfaces, and round dimensions — things you’d expect from human design. But AI challenges your biases and allows you to see new solutions you didn’t see before.”
So far, NASA is relying on AI only to design physical brackets and supports for the life support system itself — in other words, not the kind of stuff that might spell life or death in the event of failure. But that approach is already paying off by cutting mass without sacrificing strength, yielding component weight reductions of up to 50 percent, according to the report.
Even at 1/6 the gravity that astronauts experience back on Earth, that kind of small weight savings here and there can add up to make a big difference on the Moon. And even a slight slimming down can’t hurt the xEMU’s chances at perhaps becoming a new standard bearer in space fashion, as Artemis captivates a new generation with its sights set on the stars.