"And now, the moment you've all been waiting for!" On stage, a man walks forward to shouts of joy and applause. The reason for this enthusiasm is not his identity, but what he wears: a prototype of the new spacesuit that will be worn by the next astronauts on the Moon.
The event was organized Wednesday in Houston, Texas, by NASA and the company Axiom Space, which was awarded a few months ago the contract to develop suits for the Artemis 3 mission.
This mission of the American space agency, officially scheduled for 2025, is to land astronauts on the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than half a century, including the first woman.
Range of motion
In Houston, Chief Engineer Jim Stein, selected to don the diving suit, demonstrated by waving his arms, bending down, and even crouching. Improving mobility and range of motion is one of the great advances of this modern suit, compared to those of the Apollo program.
But one thing won't change: it will always be white, said Russell Ralston, deputy spacewalk program manager at Axiom Space. White makes it possible to better reflect the Sun's rays, to better regulate the temperature inside the diving suit.
If the prototype presented Wednesday was black and orange, it is because it included an additional layer intended to keep certain aspects of development confidential. Indeed, for the contracts of the following Artemis missions, Axiom Space is still competing with the company Collins Aerospace. NASA has paid $ 228.5 million for this first contract for Artemis 3.
"Hellish look," reacts Pesquet
"Any European would have a hell of a look in there, and no doubt many will have the opportunity to wear it... "reacted on Twitter the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. "But I don't know, I think it would still suit me quite well, right?"
On the Moon, the suits will have to be able to face a particularly harsh environment. The South Pole, where the Artemis missions will land, can endure temperatures of more than 50 ° C, but also very cold (up to less than 200 ° C at the bottom of some craters). Other difficulties: dust, or sharp stones.
The materials used for the different layers of the suit are therefore insulating, resistant to the risk of tearing, and prevent dust from adhering to it, explained Russell Ralston. The suits will not be completely custom-made for each astronaut, but different sizes will exist. The headset has front lights, and a high-resolution camera that will follow live the exit from Earth.
The astronauts will put on the suit by opening it from the back. They will also carry a backpack, carrying what they need to stay alive: "Like a very sophisticated compressed air bottle and air conditioner, combined," Ralston said. The suits may be worn for at least eight hours at a time, to take samples and other scientific research.
If the company has described the suit as "revolutionary", one thing will not change compared to the time of Apollo: for their natural needs, astronauts will always wear, underneath, diapers.
Developing a spacesuit is immensely difficult, and has not been done in the United States since the days of space shuttles. The technology of those currently used for spacewalks outside the International Space Station (ISS) is thus the same as it was about 40 years ago. Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace are also tasked with developing new suits for spacewalks.
Until now, NASA has owned its suits, but it has decided on a different model for the future, leasing them to the private sector. Those developed by Axiom, called AxEMU (for Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit), are however about 50% from recent research and development by NASA, which has made its knowledge available to companies, said Michael Suffredini, the boss of Axiom Space. The company plans to build its own space station, and will therefore itself need suits for its future customers on board.
- Thomas Pesquet
- Space conquest