Astronaut spacesuits have evolved to purpose a variety of tasks and missions since the historic flight of Alan Shepard in 1961. In the past, protective spacesuit designs were created for the purpose of supporting astronauts in launching and landing, performing tasks outside a spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, and walking on the dusty surface of the Moon. Now, NASA engineers and university researchers are hard at work testing new spacesuit prototypes to protect astronauts on future missions to Mars and deep space.
Engineers from the University of North Dakota (UND) are working on a spacesuit prototype called the NDX-1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. They tested the suit design throughout the American southwest before coming to Florida to utilize the research tools available at NASA’s Swamp Works facility. The team performed tests inside the regolith bin at Swamp Works, which simulates the environment astronauts will have to work in as they explore new worlds.
Future spacesuits worn on Mars must provide protection, water and air supply, and flexibility to enable the person inside to perform tasks that require a lot of movement (such as digging up samples). The regolith bin at Swamp Works consists of a fine talcum power texture similar to the substance found on the Moon. It also compares well to the materials that exist on the Red Planet.
Pablo De Leon, a UND researcher evaluating the NDX-1 at KSC, says the spacesuit they’ve designed is much more than just a “suit.”
“‘Suit’ is really kind of a misnomer,” De Leon said. “Containing a human being into anything is very complex, so we have a spacesuit which is really a miniaturized spacecraft, and it is has to be built in a way that is mobile, fairly comfortable and lets you work. It’s really much more of a machine.”
The NDX-1 wouldn’t necessarily be able to work on another world as-is, but serves as an excellent prototype for testing different technologies and possibilities. An example would be the self-developed surface sampling tools based on Apollo-era designs that will be evaluated during the suit performance tests.
Designed to be a “self-contained machine,” the NDX-1 is engineered to protect astronauts from the frigid Martian atmosphere and frequent dust storms. The suit consists of lightweight materials and comes in a rusty orange color with black ribbing.
Tests on the NDX-1 spacesuit at KSC will be compared with a heavier prototype that offers different options for mobility and protection. Engineers are curious to know if variance in the designs exhausts people quicker or functions better.
“The design of the suit is something that takes time,” De Leon said. “Normally, we need two to three years to go from first preliminary concept to having a spacesuit in a preliminary test. You’re never finished. We will always be trying to improve to make it better and better.”
Two NASA spacesuit prototypes designed and built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center are the Prototype Exploration Suit (PXS), made for use in low- and zero-gravity, and the Z-2, designed to test mobility technology for exploring the Martian surface. These prototype suits focus primarily on technology demonstrations for a planetary surface suit. Engineers seek to improve suit fit and performance and make advancements to the life support systems while minimizing the need for bulky, heavy equipment to keep the suit operational.
PXS spacesuit is a technology demonstrator that focuses on improving suit fit and performance while decreasing the equipment needed for long-duration missions to low-Earth orbit and deep space. This unique space suit design incorporates a sizing feature that could be 3-D printed while in transit, on-orbit, or on Mars. This technology could be used for achieving a customized fit for a crew member or alternate the location of bearings for better Extravehicular Activity (EVA) mobility for various phases of a mission.
Tammy Radford, a PXS suit element engineer, is responsible for the Suit Control Assembly, the small box in the front, that enables the crew members to control life support systems and electronics in their spacesuit.
“One of the great things about this job, is that after designing the box, I am able to get into the suit, since its one of the smaller sizes, and we can actually see what the limitations are with my own hands and eyes. And not just hear that second hand from another test subject that would be looking at the same data,” Radford explained.
NASA’s Z-2 spacesuit is another technology demonstrator for a future spacesuit made for exploring planetary surfaces. This sleek design is engineered for maximum productivity on a planetary surface and activities that require extra mobility such as collecting samples, exploring terrain, and maneuvering around. Advanced composites used in the Z-2 spacesuit make it lightweight and highly durable to withstand long-duration missions in the hostile Martian environment. It is also equipped with sizing features for an adjustable shoulder and waist that enables a range of crewmember sizes that can fit inside any single spacesuit.
“Prototypes are really important for spacesuit development because you can only do so much in the modeling and analysis world,” explained Richard Rhodes, lead Z-2 engineer. “You really don’t know how well the suit works until you integrate it with a person. You get the feedback that a person can give you. You have them walk around and you have them try different tasks. That’s how we really know that we’ve done a good job designing this spacesuit.”
Future spacesuits will allow astronauts to go places they’ve never been before. They will enable greater maneuverability, better protection, and make it easier for astronauts to live and work in space.