The futuristic flight suits worn by Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken during Saturday’s successful launch look a world away from the bulky orange shuttle flight suits worn when astronauts last launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. However futuristic these suits look they aren’t what astronauts are going to be wearing when NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon in 2024. Instead, NASA recently revealed the next-generation spacesuit that astronauts will wear when they head back to the Moon in 2024.
Over the last 50 years, space suits have been at the forefront of key moments that have defined humanity’s push to become a spacefaring species. Key milestones like the first spacewalks, the establishment of space laboratories like Mir, Skylab and the hugely impressive International Space Station (ISS), have all been made possible by the development of spacesuits. However, it was the Apollo missions to the moon where space suits really made their mark.
Currently, human space exploration is transitioning to its next phase, which will consist of commercial space exploration as well as Government-led efforts. As space tourism grows and more people travel to space, new spacesuits will be required to meet the needs of this type of traveller and you can see companies like Space X looking to Hollywood to add a certain flair to the suit’s functionality.
Conversely, as NASA structures missions to asteroids, the Moon, or Mars, advanced spacesuits will be necessary, not just to allow humans to safely travel to these locations but, also to allow them to be able to work when they get there.
The History of Space Suit Development
As with many things in the Space Race, the USSR took the early lead in spacesuit design, and they scored notable successes with the suit worn by Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1961 and the suit worn by Alexy Leonov who made the first spacewalk in 1965. Zvezda, which made those early suits still makes the suits worn by Russian spacewalks on the ISS.
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The Russian suits are designed to be very robust and to get the job done without frills. NASA’s design philosophy aimed to use the latest technology to achieve the best levels of performance and comfort. The Chinese have produced their own suits that are based on the Russian designs and India is also developing its own suits for its young space program.
The Latest Designs
The latest designs have to solve some of the functionality problems the Apollo astronauts found during their missions on the moon. Whilst they allowed humans to explore the moon they were incredibly cumbersome. In fact, the internet is awash with clips of astronauts falling over, unable to bend down and pick up tools that they had accidentally dropped.
Recently, NASA unveiled its next-generation spacesuit that astronauts will use when they return to the moon in 2024. The mission is part of a much more ambitious plan to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, is the first major upgrade to its spacesuit design in nearly 40 years and is meant to make the job of performing tasks in the low gravity environment of the moon much easier for the astronauts. It will allow them to bend and move in ways they couldn’t before, make it much easier to get in and out of the suits. The suits are also more modular so that astronauts can swap out components for a better fit, and importantly to be able to go months without making a repair.
The biggest improvements are tucked away in the xEMU’s portable life-support system, the backpack that turns the spacesuit into a personal spacecraft. The unit provides the space suit’s power, communications, oxygen supply, and temperature regulation so that astronauts can focus on important tasks.
Jesse Craft from engineering firm Jacobs was one of the team that was asked by NASA to update the xEMU life-support system. He outlined the competing priorities that they had to deal with. The life-support system has to be safe, obviously, but it also has to be light enough to fit the weight limits for the lunar lander and strong enough to withstand the intense g-forces and vibrations it will experience during a rocket launch. It’s a really big engineering challenge, says Craft.
How AI Is Changing Suit Design
The aggressive schedule required for a 2024 return to the moon meant that the engineers were under huge time pressure to optimise the design and as a result, they had to turn to artificial intelligence to help solve the complex problems involved.
“We consider AI to be a technology that can do something faster and better than a trained human can do,” says Jesse Coors-Blankenship, the vice president of technology at PTC, the American company that made the AI design software the team used. “Some of the software technologies are things engineers are already familiar with, like structural simulation and optimization. But with AI, we can do it faster.”
“The machine’s iterative process is 100 or 1,000 times more than we could do on our own, and it comes up with a solution that is ideally optimized within our constraints,” says Craft. It’s especially helpful given that the final design of the spacesuit life-support system is still in flux. Even a small change to the requirements in the future could result in weeks of wasted work by engineers.
As things stand the AI is busy designing what seem to be fairly mundane components, better brackets and support structures for the life support systems. It might not sound groundbreaking but the AI has managed to reduce the mass on some components by up to 50%, and when it comes to space travel, every gram counts especially as the likely costs of getting stuff to the moon are anywhere between $1m and $4.5m per kg.
“When NASA sets the requirements for a human landing system, they allocate a certain amount of mass for every possible thing you can imagine that we have to hit,” says Miller. “So anywhere we can save even a couple of tenths of a pound gets us closer to the weight limit we have to meet for the mission to run.”
With NASA dreaming of a permanently manned moon base and Space X planning to put people on Mars, the spacesuits they use will be key to success and it seems that AI may be the key technology that will turn dreams into reality.