With lessons learned from Apollo, NASA developing spacesuits for next moonwalkers

NASA scientist Kavya Manyapu planning first spacewalks on moon in 50 years

This illustration made available by NASA in April 2020 depicts Artemis astronauts on the Moon. (NASA via AP) (Uncredited)

NASA is trying to land boots on the moon in the next three years, but the current spacesuits American and European astronauts wear haven’t undergone a major update since 1978, and when it comes to moonwalking, the old-school suits just won’t do.

Moonwalkers of the Artemis generation are going to need some new gear -- and very soon -- if NASA plans to achieve its goal.

Two experts joined “Space Curious” to describe the challenges scientists face in developing the next generation of planetary spacesuits, and how lessons from the Apollo missions have furthered spacesuit technology.

Retired NASA astronaut Dan Burbank is now a senior tech fellow for Collins Aerospace, which used to be Hamilton Standard, the company that manufactured NASA’s last moon suits. They’re still producing important spacesuit tech today.

In the near future, NASA could put up a round of contracts for companies like Collins Aerospace to develop their own spacesuit, and then NASA would become a customer instead of owning the suits.

This business model has proven successful already for the commercial crew program in which NASA buys rides from SpaceX, and soon Boeing, to fly astronauts to space instead of owning the spacecraft.

NASA space scientist Kavya Manyapu is part of the team developing a game plan for the first extravehicular activities, or spacewalks, for the Artemis program, NASA’s next astronaut missions to the moon.

Prior to NASA, Manyapu oversaw the design for the spacesuits for Boeing’s astronaut spacecraft Starliner. She is also the inventor behind a new technology that could help repel moon dust -- which, turns out, will be one of the biggest challenges when astronauts return to the moon.

Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson wears the Starliner spacesuit from Boeing and David Clark.

“We went to the moon 50 years ago, and now, picking up where we left off and trying to look at, you know, what are all the other challenges that we need to face? And what we have learned from Apollo? And what can we improve? So we can go back to the moon, and this time, not just for short missions, but we’re looking at long-duration missions,” Manyapu said of the Artemis program.

Astronauts living and working on the International Space Station have microgravity spacesuits for spacewalks, but the mobility is seriously lacking. The suits on the ISS also haven’t had a major design update in a very long time.

“It’s a great spacesuit for microgravity. It’s not the kind of spacesuit that you want for surface operations on the moon,” Burbank said.

During spacewalks outside the space station, astronauts work a lot with their hands but don’t need quite as much mobility with their legs. The work on the moon will require a lot of walking around.

Manyapu said at first glance, the new Artemis moon spacesuits, known as xEMUs, might look like the microgravity spacesuits used for work outside the ISS.

“It’s the same kind of white-looking, big, like a Michelin tire ... but there’s a lot more improved capability as part of those suits,” she said. “We’ve improved the mobility of the suits. We’ve changed how, you know, our shoulders are placed, how our, you know, the lower part of the spacesuits are. They’re much more capable in terms of providing that mobility to the astronauts.”

And as the new moon spacesuits come into focus, Burbank said companies like Collins Aerospace are able to use what we know from the moonwalks during the Apollo missions and spacewalks outside the space station.

“All of us in both the industry and the NASA community have spent a lot of time hearing the lessons learned from the Apollo crew members that have done that. And we’ve had a lot of opportunity to also practice in different analog environments, both on the surface of the Earth, and also in simulated partial gravity,” Burbank said. “And so we can learn a lot about the ergonomics, learn a lot about the human factors, you learn a lot about ... how to make the combined human and suit system as efficient as possible.”

NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, prepares to use the Integrated Cardiovascular Resting Echo Scan on a crew member (out of frame) at the Human Research Facility rack in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA File Image) (WKMG 2021)

The moon will also provide a proving ground for future missions to Mars because NASA and its partners plan to “live off the land,” using resources such as water ice found on the lunar surface, something that also will be required on the red planet.

However, one of the biggest challenges teams face in developing the next-generation spacesuit is something the first moonwalkers, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, encountered during their very first steps off the lunar lander: moon dust.

“So, when we went to the moon for the first time, we knew dust was going to be a problem,” Manyapu said. “But oh, boy, we didn’t know how bad of a problem it would be.”

Because the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and it’s exposed to the vacuum of space, Manyapu explained the solar rays and UV rays are bombarding the surface and electrically charging the dust on the moon, which makes the dust stick to everything.

“Another thing that makes the dust and the regolith on the moon especially sinister, is it also tends to want to electrostatically levitate itself, essentially, so it’ll actually, it’ll migrate up the suit,” Burbank said. “And if you look at some of those pictures, you know, when the crews are returning back from the moon ... the suits are covered in that, that gray dust.”

The moon dust is also sharp, as it can cut through things like spacesuit materials.

The dust made it back into the lunar landers during the Apollo program, and when the astronauts took their helmets off, they inhaled it. As a result, all 12 moonwalkers suffered from symptoms, including sneezing and nasal congestion.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt described the symptoms as “lunar hay fever” and said the dust smelled like “spent gunpowder.”

“It impacts your lungs. It impacts, you know, all the other organs, your skin, etc. ... So there’s, you know, and then you also have other electronic equipment and you have these electrically charged particles that might, you know, short things out,” Manyapu said.

At left, Boeing engineer Kavya Manyapu works with a prototype spacesuit during her research on a new material that will better shield astronauts from dust, radiation and other hazards. The set of experimental materials at right was launched to the International Space Station on April 15, 2019 for testing. (Image: Boeing)

This time around, NASA won’t be taking any chances with this pesky moon dust. The new spacesuits will be rear-entry, meaning the astronauts can open a hatch in the back and step into them. This will help with leaving the suits outside the crew quarters so the dust doesn’t make its way there.

Also, there are new ideas being developed to help ward off the dust. Manyapu developed a technology that uses carbon nanotubes that can be embedded in a spacesuit or habitat and, using an electric charge, would instantly repel any dust.

Manyapu refers to her moon repelling technology as “spider,” a reference to the Marvel superhero “Spiderman.”

“The technology is very versatile in the sense that you can configure it to any shape or customize it to any module, anything that you want to protect, and it uses very, very low amounts of power,” she said of her invention.

Now, Manyapu hopes to test the technology further at NASA, where it could be used in the near future on moon missions.

Listen to the full episode of Space Curious below:

“Space Curious” is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media Group that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

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