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How NASA is building next-gen spacesuits for Artemis moon astronauts (video)

Forthcoming spacesuits will be a boon to all future moon explorers, both male and female, NASA officials say.

The spacesuit that will be used by NASA's Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon just a few years from now, will fit a wider range of body sizes, will be highly mobile and will be made of more modern materials compared with the Apollo surface spacesuits that preceded them in the 1960s, according to a new NASA video (opens in new tab)

"With enhanced mobility, our astronauts are more nimble than ever before," the video's narrator says, noting that the spacesuits will be used on the International Space Station (ISS), Artemis lunar surface missions in the 2020s, the planned Gateway moon-orbiting space station to support Artemis, and eventually on Mars.

The 1-minute video doesn't distinguish between the two new suits NASA is developing. The first, a red, white and blue suit optimized for walking on the moon's surface, is called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). 

The xEMU is behind on its development and may not be ready for NASA's moon-landing target in 2024, another fact that doesn't get a mention in the video. (That 2024 landing target is widely expected to slip a year or two, however.) NASA is performing a variety of qualification testing with the suit, stretching from underwater facilities on Earth to microgravity testing on the ISS, before approving it for lunar use.

Related: The evolution of the spacesuit in pictures

Amy Ross, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, left, and then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, second from left, watch as Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), and Dustin Gohmert, Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit, right, wave after being introduced by the administrator, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

A big advantage of the xEMU will be its ability to host women and astronauts of smaller sizes, compared with the current-generation extravehicular mobility unit (EMU) used by crews on the International Space Station during American segment spacewalks. NASA struggled to deploy the first all-woman spacewalk in 2019 in part due to sizing issues, given that the spacesuit was designed for a space shuttle program that was at first largely made up of men.

The second Artemis suit is an update to the iconic orange "pumpkin" suit that NASA astronauts wore on the space shuttle from 1981 to 2011. It's called the Orion Crew Survival System and will be used by astronauts during the launch into space and return to Earth, and is optimized for microgravity environments inside a spacecraft. 

The previous generation of moonwalking spacesuits was used between 1969 and 1972 during six landed missions during the Apollo program. There were actually two main generations of moonwalking spacesuits: the A7L (used on the surface for Apollo 11, 12 and 14) and A7LB (used for Apollo 15 to 17). 

The A7LB included modifications for longer surface missions such as "backpacks" that could carry more oxygen, along with enhanced joint mobility at the waist and neck (that in part helped with driving a rover first deployed on Apollo 15).

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.