NASA is preparing to send humans back to the moon for the first time in 50 years, which begs the question: What will they be wearing for their moonwalk?
A new private space program led by billionaire businessman Jared Isaacman, 39, may speed up the development of the first new microgravity spacesuits in decades.
After his first spaceflight last year with three other civilians, Isaacman has now purchased three more spaceflights from SpaceX, essentially creating a private space program. During the first Polaris Program mission slated for later this year, Isaacman and three other crew will attempt to surpass the farthest spaceflight in history and conduct the first spacewalk from a private spacecraft.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft doesn't have an airlock, so this will require at least four new spacesuits to be ready as all four crew will need to wear pressurized spacesuits when the cabin is exposed to the vacuum of space.
The testing and development of spacesuits will be essential for the Polaris Program, but it's a larger issue for NASA's goal to return to the moon.
Spacesuits for walking around on the moon
There are three kinds of spacesuits: launch and re-entry, microgravity and planetary.
Microgravity suits like what the astronauts wear during spacewalks outside the International Space Station don't offer the mobility needed to walk around and work on the moon. For NASA's Artemis program, the astronauts will need planetary spacesuits capable of a wide range of leg and arm movement.
The current spacesuits used on the ISS known as EMUs were first developed for the space shuttle program and haven't had a significant update in decades. NASA's next-generation spacesuits called the xEMU are currently under development.
There are also flight suits, like what astronauts wear during launch and re-entry. SpaceX has already been using its sleek black-and-white flight suits for NASA astronauts who launch from Florida to the ISS. The SpaceX intravehicular (IVA) suit is a pressure suit, but it doesn't offer full life-support like EVA suits which are basically mini-spacecraft.
Boeing also has its own launch and re-entry suit developed for NASA astronauts to wear in the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Starliner could begin launching astronauts later this year if Boeing completes an orbital flight test to the space station.
Last fall NASA put out a call for commercial companies to submit proposals for Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAs) contracts. The space agency is looking for companies to develop spacesuits and supporting tools for the Artemis program.
NASA is planning to award one or more contracts to private companies by April 28, according to the contract timeline.
In August 2021, NASA's Office of Inspector General reviewed the agency's spacesuit development and found that delays and budget restrictions could delay America's return to the moon.
In response, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted, "SpaceX could do it if need be." Less than a year later, SpaceX is headfirst into developing pressurized spacesuits for the first private spacewalk.
SpaceX jumps headfirst into developing next-generation spacesuit
Isaacman recently spoke to FOX Weather about his upcoming mission.
"The current IVA suit is meant to be the last line of defense, and now you're going to intentionally put these new generation suits in the vacuum of space," Isaacman said.
He said SpaceX's suit team and engineers were already making a lot of progress on this new EVA suit. Isaacman said he already provided SpaceX some feedback on the mobility of the new design.
"It's definitely like an evolution of the IVA suit," Isaacman said.
NASA plans to test its xEMU suits on the International Space Station in microgravity. SpaceX will extensively test its new suit, according to Isaacman.
"There's a lot of ways you can get good data from these suits without having to fly them in space. So I think they'll go through a pretty rigorous program here," he said.
Musk founded SpaceX with the goal of sending humans to Mars. The company's newest vehicle, the Starship spaceship, is a fully reusable spacecraft designed for deep space exploration. Starship is undergoing testing and development in South Texas. SpaceX is awaiting final FAA approval before Starship can make its first orbital test flight, possibly later this year.
Starship's first human spaceflight will happen under Isaacman's Polaris Program. He said it hadn't been determined who would be on that first flight.
However, the spacesuits developed for the first Polaris mission could significantly impact future exploration.
"Maybe at some point, what's learned from the suits will make their way into the suit so that people could maybe walk on the moon or Mars."