NASA unveils spacesuits for moon missions, featuring red, white and blue

Alan Boyle
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine looks on as spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis models a red-white-and-blue prototype for NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit; and Dustin Gohmert, project manager for Orion Crew Survival Systems, gives a wave in the Orion Crew Survival System suit. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

The fashion statement for NASA’s future moonwalkers goes beyond basic white to add some flag-worthy touches of red and blue.

But the color scheme for the “pumpkin suits” that astronauts wear during launches and landings is relatively unchanged, due to practical considerations. It turns out that the old orange, with a few blue accents added, is the new orange.

Both suit designs had their debut today at NASA Headquarters as part of the buildup to the Artemis moon program, which is due to put the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by as early as 2024.

“We need to learn how to live and work on the surface of another world for long periods of time,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told students and educators who sat in on the unveiling. “And in order to do that, friends, we need spacesuits. The Artemis Generation is now revealing its spacesuits for our generation.”

With that, Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, trudged onstage in a prototype of the colorful spacewalk suit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. Dustin Gohmert, project manager for Orion Crew Survival Systems, followed her into the spotlight, wearing a suit prototype designed for use during launch, re-entry and in-flight emergencies.

The suits are the result of years of research and redesign into suit usability. Not everyone was a fan of the red-white-and-blue color scheme, but the upgrades go far beyond the hues of the fabric: For example, the spacewalk suit has been reworked with high-tech materials to provide more flexibility in the shoulders, hips and knees. Astronauts wearing the xEMU suit will find it easy to lift their arms over their heads, a feat “which they can’t do today, and couldn’t do during the Apollo program,” NASA spacesuit engineer Amy Ross said.

Bridenstine said the Apollo moonwalkers had to travel across the lunar surface by means of bunny hops, due to the lack of mobility in the leg joints of their spacesuits. “Now we’re actually going to be able to walk on the surface of the moon, which is very different than our suits of the past,” he said.

Taking a page from Russia’s spacesuit playbook, NASA has designed the xEMU suits to be entered through the rear. The upper torso has an improved, multi-microphone audio system that gets rid of the need for the uncomfortable “Snoopy cap” that became famous in the Apollo era. And the helmet has a quick-swap protective visor that should cut down on wear and tear.

The current spacewalking suit comes in a limited range of size configurations, which forced a postponement of NASA’s first all-female spacewalk in March because the size selection available at the time wasn’t … um … suitable. (That first two-woman spacewalk, aimed at replacing a faulty battery unit on the International Space Station, is now set for Friday.)

Size shouldn’t matter so much with the xEMU suit, which has swappable components to accommodate virtually any astronaut. “To be clear, Kristine is wearing a spacesuit that will fit all of our astronauts when we go to the moon,” Bridenstine said.

The launch-and-entry suit will remain predominantly orange because that color shows up best if the astronauts have to make an emergency exit at sea. But the helmet is lighter and stronger, and the suit has touchscreen-compatible gloves as well as a new and improved built-in cooling system.

NASA still has to do further design refinements and testing to make sure the new spacesuits are good to go. The xEMU is due to get a tryout on the space station in the early 2020s, setting the stage for a star turn on the moon in 2024.

There’s yet another spacesuit fashion statement due on Wednesday: Virgin Galactic and Under Armour say that’s when they’ll unveil the design for the suits that SpaceShipTwo’s passengers will wear during suborbital flights starting next year.

Update for 7:30 p.m. PT Oct. 16: A commenter raised an oft-asked question with regard to the new spacesuits: What happens when you need to “go”? Here’s how NASA answers the question about in-suit bathroom accommodations:

“Astronauts will still wear a diaper-like garment during spacewalks that is a combination of commercial products stitched together for maximum absorption. Although space explorers generally prefer to not use it, it is there in the event they need to relieve themselves during a spacewalk that can last many hours.”

Remember, the xEMU suit will be worn only for excursions outside the spacecraft, even on the moon or Mars. For what it’s worth, Apollo moonwalkers wore diaper-like “fecal containment systems” inside their spacesuits, and reportedly left 96 bags of urine, feces and vomit behind on the lunar surface. Some think the poop is worth going back for.

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