NASA is designing new spacesuits for the Artemis lunar mission that's shooting for the moon by 2024, and they might make you feel like you’re looking at something straight off a movie set.
The thing is that NASA’s current design just won’t make it on the moon. The suit astronauts on the ISS wear now, the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit), was not made for moonwalking, but for spacewalks or EVAS (Extravehicular Activities). Because of this, the space agency recently made an announcement at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium that the prototype of its next-gen EVA suit, the xEMU, just passed its preliminary design review and is on its way to being tested in space by 2023.
Reaching this level hasn’t been easy for the xEMU (never mind the designers behind it). Passing the preliminary design review means that the baseline design for the new suit is operating as it should. So far, xEMU has survived 30 runs in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is basically an enormous swimming pool used for spacewalk training, since the next best thing to moving around in microgravity is being submerged in water.
It wasn’t that long ago that NASA was blasted by the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) for spending $200 million dollars on other programs but still being “years away from having a flight-ready spacesuit capable of replacing the EMU or suitable for use on future exploration missions.” NASA felt the OIG was being too harsh. Maybe it was, because both the current ISS suit and multiple spacesuit ideas that had been developed over the years all went into what is now the xEMU.
The xEMU will fit most NASA astronauts more easily because of a smaller display unit on the front, which will hopefully prevent something like that cancelled all-female spacewalk from happening again. The 12 hours needed to modify the Hard Upper Torso unit on the EMU would have taken up too much time. It was this incident that pushed NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to assure the House science committee that the size ranges for future spacesuit designs would be more accommodating.
The OIG report wasn’t all negative. It gave a rundown of the differences between a spacewalk suit and a moonwalk suit, and also stated that the successor to the xEMU would be mEMU, for — you guessed it — Mars.
“The xEMU builds on the PLSS and PGS technologies in the xEMU Lite and features advanced power, avionics, and software subsystems,” the report stated. “The mEMU will likely not be finalized for many years, but could include some of the technologies featured in…[the] xEMU.”
Just thinking about the mEMU might make you imagine something like what Matt Damon wore in The Martian, but that had a few inaccuracies, and the real thing might be even cooler.