Jan 15

The Next Generation Spacesuit: Safety and Preparation for Commercial Flight

With the future of space travel moving forward, which includes commercial spaceflight and an eventual return to the moon, a major focus in the industry has been on the safety of astronauts and even potential passengers. Namely, that of the astronaut suit and its benefits and adaptability in space. Newly designed suits have recently been released with the potential to increase an individual astronaut’s survivability and well-being. NASA has unveiled a new spacesuit – the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) – and a new cabin suit called the Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS). These new suits will “improve on the suits previously worn on the Moon during the Apollo era [and allow] 21 st Century moon-walkers to accomplish much more complex tasks” according to a NASA representative. Both suits have been designed to be custom-fit to the individual astronaut through the use of 3D scans and models as part of the upcoming Artemis III mission; a mission to the lunar south pole.

The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (Left) and the Orion Crew Survival System (Right).

A mission to the moon has not been attempted since 1972, but with the success of the Orion Capsule launched in 2014, NASA is poised to return relatively soon. The xEMU has been unveiled specifically for use in a return to the Moon but the design has incorporated interchangeable parts that could allow this suit to be upgraded and used again on future missions to the International Space Station, to the Moon or even Mars.

An astronaut’s suit acts like their own personalized spaceship while outside the spacecraft. Unlike the former Apollo-era spacesuits, the xEMU has been designed to be dust tolerant. A danger of lunar soil is that it is comprised of tiny glass-like shards, so the suit was designed to “prevent inhalation or contamination of the suit’s life support system.” Further, the xEMU has seen many advances in suit mobility, compared with their Apollo-era brethren, and is divided into upper and lower torso regions. The lower torso will allow “bending and rotating at the hips, increased bending at the knees, and hiking-style boots with flexible soles.” Thus, it would make actions such as bending, crouching and sitting much easier. The upper torso region will “allow astronauts to move their arms more freely and easily lift objects over their heads or reach across their body in the pressurized suit” thanks to updated shoulder enhancements. With these advances, the astronaut would be able to perform their daily routines with increased ease. The custom-fit would provide greater comfort and range of motion thus allowing astronauts to move more freely on the lunar surface instead of “bunny-hopping” like their Apollo-era counterparts.

The lower torso provides greater bending and rotating at the hips and increased bending at the knees.

For use inside the spacecraft, particularly during launch and re-entry, NASA has revealed their Orion spacesuit. Again, this suit is custom fit and “equipped with safety technology and mobility features to help protect astronauts on launch day, in emergency situations, high-risk parts of missions near the Moon, and during a high-speed return to Earth.” While originally designed for launch and re-entry, the suits have been created so they could be quickly put on, supply oxygen with new adaptable interfaces and are able to keep astronauts alive for up to six days in the case of lost cabin pressure or a similar emergency. With more durable and fire-resistant parts, including touch-screen compatible gloves and lighter, stronger helmets, the Orion suits account for the safety of not only the mission but of the journeys both there and back.

While NASA has taken the front seat on the safety and security of their astronauts regarding Artemis III, Virgin Galactic – owned and operated by Virgin travel mogul Richard Branson – has designed in partnership with Under Armour a new spacesuit specifically for commercial spaceflight. While commercial spaceflight is not yet a reality, Virgin Galactic has successfully tested a flight of its SpaceShipTwo with hopes to begin regular flights in 2020. However, unlike the xEMU and Orion suits that have been designed for survivability and emergency situations, the Virgin Galactic suits have been designed as a “spacesuit to travel in style”.

(Above) Virgin Galactic and Under Armour’s partnered design for the commercial flight spacesuit.

The suit was developed “to keep passengers warm, dry, comfortable and – above all else – safe”, according to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. These suits will consist of a “form-fitting base layer covered by a stylish – but functional – ‘spacesuit’ that comes with plenty of pockets and space for patches,” but does not come with any type of helmet. While the suits do appear to be some long-lost Star Trek design, probably done so for the tourism aspect of the commercial spaceflight industry, they are designed to provide basic safety for those customers paying for the Virgin Galactic experience. According to Beth Moses, the chief astronaut trainer of Virgin Galactic, “the big difference between spacesuits of the past and this suit is that those suits were to perform a task, and this suit is to enjoy and savour space on [one’s] own terms.”

Traditionally, spaceflight suits have always been rather bulky and cumbersome items, as seen in the images for the xEMU. But researchers at MIT are developing a prototype spacesuit that is the exact opposite. In fact, the suit is skin tight which could potentially change the limits of space exploration. Again, this suit is a prototype, called a “second-skin” by researchers, and has been designed to not only provide support for the astronaut but to give them practically free range of motion. If this development proves lucrative, it could potentially make the new developments from NASA and ILC Dover obsolete.

(Above) A prototype “second-skin” suit developed by researchers at MIT.

Skin-tight spacesuits are not a new idea. They have been proposed in the past. But a major difficulty they faced was how an astronaut would be able to don and remove a tailored, skin-tight uniform. Researchers at MIT believe they have found an answer. This “second skin” suit uses small springlike coils that respond to heat. The coils are built out of a shape-memory alloy which allows the coils to spring back to their original engineered shape after being bent, deformed or heated. When built into the suit, the coils would allow the lightweight and flexible suit to be put on rather easily and then, once plugged into a power supply, the suit would “contract and essentially shrink-wrap around [the astronaut’s] body.” Researchers say they are aiming to create this suit to be as durable and protective as former spacesuits. While former spacesuits were gas-pressurised, these new suits would “achieve the same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether.” While this suit is still in development, the benefits that could come from such a design could potentially revolutionize planetary exploration. However, the bulkier spacesuits, such as the xEMU, would be of more use in non-planetary missions such as those involving the International Space Station.

Space exploration is moving forward with increased interest and vigour. Missions to the lunar surface and commercial spaceflight are certain eventualities, with a mission to Mars becoming more lucrative. With an increased number of missions and opportunities for exploration and commercial entities gracing the horizon, there will be a call for spacesuits with different requirements and durability. So whether it is a return to the Moon with the xEMU, the first manned mission to Mars with a “second-skin” suit, or simply a commercial experience of space with Virgin Galactic, ensuring the safety of astronauts and crew has been paramount leading to a greater possibility of success in future missions.

– Evan Cook

1 comment

  1. […] Orion survival suit for entry and re-entry (L) and xEMU for moonwalking (R). Source: UKAM […]

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