In the world there are only three types of pressure suits that allow an astronaut to exit a vehicle in space: the NASA EMU suits, which are used on the American part of the International Space Station (ISS), and the Orlan-MKS, which are used in Russia. Part of the International Space Station and Feitian 2 aboard the Chinese space station. And if we take into account that Feitian is derived directly from the Russian Orlan, then we can say that there are only two types of spacesuits capable of active extravehicular activities (EVAs). This scenario should change soon. On the other hand, this year SpaceX’s new extravehicular diving suit will make its debut on the Polaris Dawn mission. On the other hand, NASA needs a specific diving suit for the first lunar landing of the Artemis program — which will happen on the Artemis III mission — and one to replace the International Space Station’s venerable EMU. economic and monetary union (out-of-vehicle mobility unit) was developed for the space shuttle in the 1970s using technology from the Apollo and Skylab helmets (in fact, the helmet’s transparent inner bubble is almost identical to the helmet of the iconic Apollo A7L suit).
With the shuttle’s retirement, EMU suits are used only on the International Space Station, but they are aging and getting more and more ailments (ten years ago, the EMU nearly managed the dubious feat of plunging astronaut Luca Parmitano into orbit). Furthermore, NASA has 11 Life Support Only or PLSS units (Mobile life support system), the “backpacks” of the emu suit, which is by far the most complex and expensive part of the suit, four of which are on board the station at any one time. However, everything indicates that the International Space Station will remain in service until at least 2028, so NASA decided to develop a new diving suit for the space station other than the one that will be used in the Artemis program. The problem is, the space agency has spent over $400 million since 2007 and, after all, hasn’t been able to manufacture a replacement suit in all these years. The new extravehicular spacesuit should have been developed under the xEMU program for Artemis and xEMU Lite for the International Space Station, but costs and delays have not stopped increasing, to the point of endangering the Artemis III lunar landing mission.
For this reason, last year NASA decided to trust Private Initiative to carry out these suits. On June 1, 2022, the agency announced that companies selected for xEVAS contracts (Exploration services outside the vehicle) will be Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace. More than anything, because they were the only companies applying for xEVAS contracts: in fact, SpaceX did not compete with these two companies despite the development of the EVA suit and despite the fact that the lunar module for the Artemis III and Artemis IV missions would be manufactured by Elon Musk. Axiom will take charge of the spacesuit for the Artemis III lunar mission, while a Collins Aerospace-led consortium will manufacture a replacement EMU for the International Space Station. In December 2022, NASA announced that the value of the Axiom contract would be $228 million, while the Collins Aerospace contract would be valued at $97.2 million (both contracts are fixed cost and milestones –Milestones– So the federal government will not spend more than these amounts). The agency expects to spend a total of $3.5 billion on the Artemis and ISS spacesuits through 2034. As for the replacement EMU, Collins Aerospace will handle the PLSS life support backpack, while ILC Dover will design the suit itself and Oceaneering will be responsible for the interfaces with the vehicle. Collins’ suit should be ready by 2026.
Collins and Axiom will benefit from the development of the xEMU suit, as NASA will provide both companies with data from this program free of charge. The distribution of contracts is quite staggering as Axiom lacks experience in designing diving suits, while Collins Aerospace (formerly Hamilton Sundstrand) and ILC Dover have been involved in building Apollo diving suits and the EMU itself, as well as xEMU prototypes. In fact, in the middle of the last decade, ILC Dover built xEMU’s Z-1 and Z-2 prototypes and in 2019 introduced the Astro helmet based on those designs. It is not clear why NASA chose Axiom over Collins and ILC given the evolution of xEMU design. However, it should be noted that Axiom was already designing its own helmets for the company’s future space station. On the other hand, NASA ensures that each suit can become the other if necessary. In other words, if Axiom is late in donning her lunar suit, Collins can adapt him to that mission and vice versa. In this sense, it must be remembered that the main difference between the two diving suits is that the lunar suit must have greater mobility in the legs and torso, as well as measures of protection from the abrasive and “sticky” lunar regolith. The new suits will allow them to be worn by almost all potential astronauts, both men and women, in contrast to the European Meteorological Union, which has a more limited range by size.
As for other technical details, we don’t know exactly what these suits will look like, though we’ve already seen the suit from Collins Aerospace, and unsurprisingly it looks a lot like the aforementioned Astro prototype, with the PLSS package integrated into the upper torso. The life-support backpack doubles as a “door” for entry into the suit, a design solution derived directly from Soviet Orlan/Krechet diving suits. Of course, the glove, helmet and lower torso pieces are kept separate with the legs, as is the case in EMU (Orlán and Feitian are height-adjustable one-piece suits, except for the gloves, which are made to order). Not much is known about the Axiom suit, other than that it will look very similar to the xEMU suit as well. Although one might think this is a minor issue compared to spacecraft development, for NASA the Artemis program’s diving suits are now the main stumbling block that could prevent the moon landing in 2025 – the official date for Artemis III – along with the development of the lunar module. SpaceX’s HLS. So axiom better hurry.