It was a hands-on, up-close, in-depth look at the next spacesuits that astronauts will wear when they walk on the moon for the Artemis III mission.
News 6 was in Houston last week for the announcement of the Artemis II crew (the astronauts that will fly around the moon in preparation for Artemis III) and got an invite to Axiom Space, based in Houston.
Last year, NASA awarded $228 million to Axiom to continue development of the suits. It’s a similar arrangement with ferrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA contracts with several commercial companies - SpaceX, Boeing and Northrup Grumman - to service the ISS.
Axiom Space is one of two commercial companies selected by NASA to build the suits (Collins Aerospace is the other). Competition, particularly within the space industry, has driven down costs and spawned innovation.
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News 6′s tour began in Axiom’s EVA offices under renovation in Houston. EVA stands for “extra-vehicular activity” - NASA’s term for anything astronauts do outside their spacecraft in spacesuits.
So it was particularly fitting that News 6′s tour guide was Axiom’s EVA Deputy Program Manager Russell Ralston.
“We’re providing a service,” Ralston explained. “So it’s a little bit like a rental car, where NASA is renting these suits from us for this mission, but Axiom retains ownership of the suits. So the number of suits that we produce and need is dependent on any one given mission’s goals and objectives - how many crew are flying and things like that. So we’ll build whatever is necessary to support that, that given mission. But there’s also an opportunity for reuse of spacesuits across different missions and things like that.”
How did Axiom learn what works in space and on the moon?
“Great question,” Ralston said. “So we’ve actually hired a lot of the industry’s kind of foremost experts in terms of the spacesuit world. So a lot of us, myself included, have spent our entire careers in the spacesuit, what I call spacesuit land or spacesuit world.”
Axiom’s leader, President and CEO Mike Suffredini, is by all accounts a foremost space expert. He oversaw the completion of the ISS during his 30-year career at NASA, helping land the $228 million deal last year with NASA to design and build the next generation spacesuits for the next EVA on the moon.
“A spacesuit is really a spacecraft,” Ralston said. “So it has a lot of the same life support systems and safety systems and other things that that you would have to design as part of designing any spacecraft.”
The requirements of today’s spacesuit are stringent - design insulation to protect against 400-degree temperature swings, provide cooling, supply oxygen, remove carbon dioxide, offer an outer layer that guards against rips or tears while the inner layer is soft and comfortable, and deliver all of this in a package that allows complete mobility to where an astronaut can move freely in space.
The new suits must also accommodate at least 90% of the U.S. male and female population. Existing suits limit who can spacewalk because the suits are tailored to a specific height or gender and interchangeable components are not readily available in space.
“So, you know, when you’re doing a spacewalk, you might be holding on to a handrail that’s at 200 degrees Fahrenheit or -200 degrees Fahrenheit,” Ralston said.
Sunlit areas on spacecrafts and the surface of the moon are exponentially hotter than dark areas or permanently shadowed regions.
“So one of the things that really is really an improvement on this suit, especially if you compare it to what the Apollo astronauts had, is we’ve incorporated a number of mobility elements that will provide to the astronauts much more range of motion, but also ease of motion,” Ralston said. “So in spacesuits, we kind of think about, well, how far can you move your body and your hands and reach? And then how hard is it to do that? So we try to we try to maximize how much mobility you have and then minimize how hard it is to do that.”
Ralston said the suit must allow an astronaut to work on the moon and walk on the moon.
“So as an example, our arms have joints that allow rotation,” Ralston said. “They have other joints that allow kind of flexion and extension. The same thing is true for the wrist in the glove. So if you think about your body and all the motions that you can do, we have to think about that and design that into the spacesuit and make it as easy as possible knowing that you’re actually pressurized like a basketball.”
To do that, each section of the suit is made up of fragments of fabric, all meticulously sewn together. The glove alone will have hundreds of tiny strips sewn together, creating multiple hinge points so that the fingers and the hand - and for that matter, the entire human body - can move in space as naturally as it does on Earth.
Professionals with decades of sewing experience operate the sewing machines, stitching together the multiple strips of fabric. Some of them used to make Space Shuttle-era spacesuits, some come from the dance and theater industry, and some worked on Hollywood movie sets.
And Axiom built bearings into the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees of the suit so body parts can bend and twist.
How long does it take for the sewing team to sew together an entire spacesuit?
“We can probably crank up all the soft goods in a couple months, maybe - maybe a couple or maybe faster,” Ralston said.
NASA spent 15 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to design and build new spacesuits but gave up when an audit revealed the process was over budget and behind schedule. Axiom has utilized those designs.
“And what’s another neat thing I like about this is you learn from those who kind of came before you,” Ralston said. “So believe it or not, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to engineers who worked in Apollo and learn from them.”
Apollo used a process called sublimation to cool astronauts inside the suits. Axiom uses evaporation.
The life support system - that’s the box on the back of the suit - contains Axiom’s water membrane evaporator and adds oxygen while removing carbon dioxide. That alone has taken Axiom years to perfect.
“It’s a very intensive program to make sure that when astronauts step onto the lunar surface in the Axiom space suit, it’s a very safe design, and it’s a design that’s very high performing,” Ralston said. “So that’s a very important step in the process.”
Once the suits are finished, NASA must qualify them - testing them here on Earth in all of the rigorous chambers that simulate zero gravity. All of that should be complete for the Artemis III mission scheduled no sooner than 2025.
Besides building the next space suits, Axiom is also building the next space station. NASA has agreed to let Axiom build modules that will attach in space to the International Space Station, and then over the next few years, when the ISS decommissioned, those modules will detach and form their own commercial space station - the first ever.
The first commercial module is scheduled to fly in 2025.
Axiom is also preparing for Ax-2 - the next mission to the ISS from the Kennedy Space Center with private astronauts.