If everything goes according to the schedule, NASA should send a manned mission to the moon in the mid-2020s. The new spacecraft capsule is being developed. At the same time, there should also be a moon-orbiting station for future missions into the solar system.
But what about the new space suits?
The current space suits are decades old, bulky, rigid and in few numbers considering that we’re now in the era of space exploration.
Pablo de León is a space suit-designer and a professor at the University of North Dakota (Grand Forks). He explains that this is a “serious issue.”
A single mission requires three different types of space suits for only an astronaut. Inside the spacecraft, they can wear a simple military flight suit. But spacewalks require a suit that will protect from radiation, pressure, and air. Then, for a surface mission, astronauts need a space suit like the EVA, but the one available now is too rigid for astronauts to bend their legs.
With the plans to launch the Exploration Mission 1, testing Orion and the heavy rocket beginning with the 2020s, and the Lunar Gateway station ready 5-6 years after, the inspector general of the agency warned last year in an audit that NASA is “years away from having a flight-ready space suit… suitable for use on future exploration missions.”
Meanwhile, Boeing and SpaceX have designed their flight suits for passengers that would fly with their spacecraft.
The crew on the International Space Station wear casual clothes inside, and for spacewalks, they have a few Shuttle-era Extravehicular Mobility Unit EVA suits, which were designed back in the 1970s.
But since the Apollo 17 lunar mission in 1972, nobody walked on the moon. The A7-LB pressure suits wore by Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were deteriorated by the harsh conditions on the moon and are now museum pieces.
Why are they taking so long to make a suit?
The former NASA chief historian explained that the suits “are in themselves little spaceships” and that they’re very sophisticated.
A current EVA suit has 14 layers which add to a weight of 275 pounds, and it only comes in three sizes, which if none fits an astronaut, they can risk shoulder injuries. After donning the suit, the astronaut must spend about four hours to prepare the internal pressure and the oxygen air supply and then slowly adjust the conditions inside it.
Both De León and Dava Newman (former NASA deputy administrator) who is now designing space suits at MIT are looking to improve space suits.
Newman’s ideas are to make a light “biosuit,” which will be custom made for each astronaut. She plans to replace the pressurized internal gas with direct mechanical pressure:
“I want folks using the majority of their energy to do work, not fighting a gas-pressurized suit.”
De León also focuses on making a suit lighter, flexible and easier to put and take off. He aims to shorten the time needed for preparing the internal pressure and the oxygen air supply:
“A new program to develop a new suit is something should have been done in early ’90s.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.