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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

"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 is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.