The first astronauts to walk on the moon since the 1970s will do so wearing sleek, new spacesuits. Axiom Space, the private company NASA tapped to design moonwalk suits for the Artemis 3 mission, unveiled its prototype on Wednesday at NASA’s Space Center Houston.
The modern suits, which are called Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Units, or AxEMUs, build on work that NASA staffers have already been doing to develop advanced spacesuit designs. They’re tailored to offer astronauts more flexibility and mobility when they set foot on the lunar South Pole, which is scheduled to take place as soon as 2025.
Designed to fit 90 percent of men and women in the United States, the new suits will also help NASA reach its goal of landing the first woman on the moon during Artemis 3.
At the unveiling event this week, Axiom Space engineer Jim Stein modeled the suit for students and members of the media. Using a staff for balance, Stein did squats and lateral lunges on stage to show off the suit’s maneuverability. Russell Ralston, deputy program manager of extravehicular activity at Axiom Space, pointed out various elements of the suit’s design, from the headlights attached to the bubble-shaped helmet to the backpack that contains the portable life support system. He explained how astronauts will get into the suit via a hinged hatch on its backside.
“You would put your feet in, put your arms in and then kind of shimmy down into the suit,” Ralston said at the event. “And then we would close the hatch.”
On stage, Stein wore a dark grey suit with orange, light blue and navy blue accents. But the ones astronauts will actually wear when they land on the moon will be all white, to help keep them cool in space. The grey part of the displayed suit is just a cover layer, similar to a jacket, that protects the material’s inner layers during training and ground testing, per Ralston. For now, Axiom is also using the cover layer to protect the company’s innovations from competitors.
That desire for secrecy stems, in part, from the fact that NASA is now hiring private companies for work on various projects. Those commercial service providers are not locked into exclusive contracts with NASA and can make deals with other customers to sell their products and services. In this way, the space agency benefits from faster, cheaper innovations than it could develop itself, while fostering a “growing space economy,” says Lara Kearney, manager of NASA’s Extravehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility program, in a statement.
With the Artemis program, NASA wants to put humans back on the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. The space agency hopes to establish the first long-term presence on the moon and, using knowledge gleaned from those efforts, send the first humans to Mars. Artemis 1 successfully launched the uncrewed Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon in November, after several delays. Artemis 2, which is scheduled for 2024, aims to fly four astronauts around the moon.
The last time humans set foot on the moon was more than 50 years ago, during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. And the last time NASA designed new spacesuits was roughly four decades ago, for astronauts to wear on the Space Shuttle. Today, those suits are the ones in use on the International Space Station (ISS).
In 2019, NASA unveiled its prototype for a new spacesuit called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. But, two years later, NASA’s inspector general determined that the suits would not be ready until at least April 2025, and the agency decided to turn to the private aerospace industry for help.
Last June, NASA announced it had chosen Axiom and Collins Aerospace—the only two companies to submit bids—to develop new spacesuits to be worn on the moon and on the ISS. Axiom won the $228.5 million contract in September to build the new moon suits. A few months later, Collins Aerospace nabbed the $97.2 million contract to configure new spacesuits for spacewalks outside the ISS.