NASA shows off new moon spacesuits to support Artemis program

Current spacesuits are 40 years old, won’t work for moonwalking

NASA showed off Tuesday what future moonwalking astronauts will wear as they work on the lunar surface and during launch on missions to the moon.

As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time in nearly 50 years the space agency has been developing spacesuits to support those moon missions under the Artemis program.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, along with spacesuit engineers and astronaut Kate Rubins, demonstrated live on NASA Television two spacesuits in development: one for launch and reentry, known as the Orion Crew Survival System, and one for moonwalking on the lunar South Pole, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or XEMU.

In front of a giant American flag, spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis, with NASA Johnson Space Center, wore the pressurized red, white and blue xEMU suit showing off the new range of motion its joint bearings provides. Davis performed squats and picked up a rock on the stage at NASA headquarters.

The Apollo-era spacesuits required the astronauts to "bunny hop" due to the limited range of joint motion.

Spacesuit engineer Dustin Gohmert wore the bright orange Orion Crew Survival System suit on stage that will be worn during launch and landing in the Orion spacecraft.

Spacesuit engineer Dustin Gohmert wears the bright orange Orion Crew Survival System suit, on right. (Images: NASA)

The suit is typically unpressurized but should Orion lose pressure the suit can keep astronauts alive for up to six days, Gohmert said.​​​​​​​

There are a few things to know about NASA spacesuits:

Doesn't NASA already have spacesuits? There are actually three types of spacesuits an astronaut might need: A flight suit, worn during launch and landing, extravehicular mobility units, or EMUs, worn during a spacewalk outside the space station, and a planetary spacesuit worn for working on the surface of the moon or Mars.

Essentially, EMU suits function as a personalized spacecraft, said Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Newman, the former NASA deputy administrator during the Obama administration, is considered a pioneer in planetary spacesuit design. She spoke to News 6 in June about what it would take to replace the aging spacesuits and what NASA needs to support human missions to the moon and Mars.

"The spacesuit is what I call the world's smallest spacecraft. It's amazing," Newman said. "Imagine designing an entire spacecraft that provides your pressure, your air to breathe, scrubs out your carbon dioxide, take that spacecraft and shrink it around a person. And now I get to move in this gas-pressurized spacesuit."

Unlike flight suits used for launch and landing, the current EMUs used for spacewalks outside the space station are 40 years old with minimal updates.

NASA's EMU inventory is also running low. There are only about 11 or 12 complete sets left.

The EMUs suits would not work for Mars and moon missions, because they lack the hip flexibility for walking, according to Newman.

Why is this spacesuit news important?

While researchers and those within NASA have known for years the EMUs need to be replaced, the plight gained international traction in March after two medium-size upper torsos of the suits weren't available for astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain, causing the first all-women spacewalk to be postponed. The spacewalk was completed as planned but Koch was joined by astronaut Nick Hague instead of her female counterpart.

The update comes as NASA prepares for a redo of sorts with its first all-female spacewalk later this month by Koch and NASA astronaut Jessica Meir.

A News 6 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that, as of June this year, NASA didn't have a clear path or the necessary funding to replace the suits.

With the goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 spacesuit development will become an increasing priority.

Following the spacewalk kerfuffle, NASA put out a call for input of lunar spacesuit hardware production. Earlier this month, the space agency sought feedback to help refine its strategy for production of lunar spacesuits, known as xEMUs, for Artemis and beyond, according to NASA's request for information.

What do we know about the xEMU?

According to NASA spacesuit engineers, the xEMU has been in development for about three years in the U.S. and parts of it have undergone testing on the International Space Station.

The xEMU uses the same pressurized system the current EMUs use but with added movement. Remember, astronauts need to be able to walk and collect samples on the moon.

NASA said the xEMU lower torso, or pants of the spacesuit, will allow bending and rotating at the hips, along with increased bending at the knees. The new moon boots will be "hiking-style" with flexible soles.

On the upper torso, or shirt of the spacesuit, astronauts will be able "to move their arms more freely and easily lift objects over their heads or reach across their body in the pressurized suit," according to NASA.

The overall goal of the xEMU project is to provide the foundation to replace the current EMU, explore suit development and possible commercialization of EVA capabilities, NASA said in June.