Astronauts are Practicing Lunar Operations in New Space Suits

Through the Artemis Program, NASA will send astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. While the challenges remain the same, the equipment has evolved, including the rocket, spacecraft, human landing system (HLS), and space suits. In preparation for Artemis III (planned for September 2026), NASA recently conducted a test where astronauts donned the new space suits developed by Axiom Space and practiced interacting with the hardware that will take them to the Moon.

These new suits, the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU), were developed specifically for the Artemis III mission. The day-long test took place on April 30th at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, where astronaut Doug “Wheels” Wheelock and Axiom Space astronaut Peggy Whitson interacted with a full-scale model of the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System (HLS). This was the first time astronauts trained in pressurized spacesuits and conducted mock operations with the HLS hardware.

The Artemis III spacesuit prototype, the AxEMU. Though this prototype uses a dark gray cover material, the final version will likely be all-white when worn by NASA astronauts on the Moon’s surface. Credit: Axiom Space

The test provided valuable feedback on the Starship HLS and the AxEMU spacesuits for NASA and its commercial partners. It also gave astronauts a chance to gauge the suits’ range of motion and to get a feel for the interior of the Starship HLS and its mechanical systems. Said Logan Kennedy, lead for surface activities in NASA’s HLS Program, in a NASA press statement:

“Overall, I was pleased with the astronauts’ operation of the control panel and with their ability to perform the difficult tasks they will have to do before stepping onto the Moon. The test also confirmed that the amount of space available in the airlock, on the deck, and in the elevator, are sufficient for the work our astronauts plan to do.”

The test consisted of Wheelock and Whitson practicing putting on and taking off the spacesuits – which included the suit’s Portable Life Support System (PLSS) – in the Starship HLS‘ full-scale airlock. Since the Artemis III astronauts will need to put the suits on with minimal assistance, this test allowed NASA to test how easily the suits are to get in and out of. The suits were then pressurized and powered up, and Wheelock and Whitson began interacting with the mobility aids (handrails and straps) and control panel in the airlock.

They then walked from the airlock deck to the HLS elevator, which will take the Artemis III astronauts and their equipment to the lunar surface to conduct extravehicular activity (EVA). Though the tasks were routine, they validated the spacesuit design and brought NASA one step closer to achieving its goals through the Artemis Program. As Amit Kshatriya (NASA’s Moon to Mars program manager) expressed:

“With Artemis, NASA is going to the Moon in a whole new way, with international partners and industry partners like Axiom Space and SpaceX. These partners are contributing their expertise and providing integral parts of the deep space architecture that they develop with NASA’s insight and oversight. Integrated tests like this one, with key programs and partners working together, are crucial to ensure systems operate smoothly and are safe and effective for astronauts before they take the next steps on the Moon.”

Wheelock and Whitson tested the agility of the spacesuits by conducting movements and tasks similar to those necessary during lunar surface exploration on Artemis missions. Credit: SpaceX

Putting the spacesuits through rigorous testing is necessary since the Artemis III mission will include EVAs in space and on the lunar surface. The four-person crew will launch aboard an Orion spacecraft atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) while the Starship HLS launches separately and refuels in orbit. The Orion spacecraft will rendezvous and dock with the HLS in lunar orbit; two astronauts will transfer aboard and then take the HLS to and from the lunar surface. The AxEMU suits are designed to provide greater flexibility and accommodate a wider range of astronauts.

This is in keeping with NASA’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in its astronaut corps. Despite delays, things are undeniably coming together for Artemis III!

Further Reading: NASA

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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