NASA unveils new spacesuits astronauts will wear on the moon, Mars

The suits are designed to outperform those used during the Apollo program.
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By David Freeman

NASA astronauts are getting some new duds.

In anticipation of the upcoming Artemis program that will send space flyers back to the moon in 2024, the space agency held a media event at its Washington headquarters Tuesday to show off two new spacesuit designs. The spacesuits join a long line of ever-evolving suits that date back to the earliest days of the space program.

One of the suits, known as the Orion Crew Survival System, will be worn during launch and reentry aboard the Orion spacecraft. The other, called xEMU for Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, will be worn during excursions on the moon and, later, on Mars.

NASA said the xEMU is designed to outperform spacesuits worn during the Apollo era, as well as the ones now worn during spacewalks outside the International Space Station.

NASA's next generation spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), will be used for exploring the surface of the moon's South Pole.NASA

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“You won’t see the bunny hopping and falls like those seen in the Apollo videos, because we’ve added bearings and new soft elements to help the suit move smoothly with the wearer,” Marshall Smith, director of NASA’s human lunar exploration program, said in a statement. “With the improvements to the suits for Artemis missions, astronauts can now open up new possibilities for science and exploration at the moon.”

NASA declined to give details on the new suits in advance of the event. But Pablo de Leon, a spacesuit expert at the University of North Dakota, told NBC News MACH in an email that one feature of the xEMU will be a new system for putting the suit on and taking it off.

“The last suits used on the moon … used a zipper to don and doff,” he said. “This is not the case anymore, since dust gets around the zipper’s teeth and will be prone to failure. Donning and doffing for the xEMU will be by a large opening in the back, with a sealed door.”

The xEMU will allow for greater mobility, especially in the shoulders, and will be able to keep astronauts comfortable from 250 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit, NASA spacesuit designer Amy Ross said during the event. In the event of an emergency, astronauts will be able to "shelter" inside the suit for up to six days, Dustin Gohmert, NASA's Orion crew survival systems project manager, added.

The new suit will also accommodate “a broad range of astronaut sizes,” the agency said in a separate statement. That could help NASA avoid a repeat of an embarrassing situation that occurred in March, when the agency had to cancel the first all-female spacewalk at the last minute because it didn’t have enough suits of the right size.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, gives a thumbs up as a spacesuit engineer demonstrates NASA's new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) on Oct. 15, 2019 in Washington.Joel Kowsky / NASA

That first-of-its-kind spacewalk will now take place Oct. 21 as part of an ongoing "spacewalk bonanza" that continues through December. It will be conducted by astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, both of whom are currently aboard the station.

Spacesuits are currently in short supply. De Leon said, “The astronauts on board the station only have four sets, and that’s pretty much it."

Additional reporting by Denise Chow

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