To return to the Moon, astronauts need new spacesuits

A prototype of a lunar spacesuit developed at the University of North Dakota
A prototype of a lunar spacesuit developed at the University of North Dakota

Space engineer Pablo de Leon has designed two spacesuit prototypes for the Moon and for Mars, and knows how long development takes.

If NASA wants to meet its own deadline of returning to the Moon by 2024, it needs to get a move on.

"NASA still doesn't have a suit because the decision was taken suddenly," explained the Argentine engineer, who is the director of a lab at the University of North Dakota financed by NASA and dedicated to crewed .

"On the one hand, there's this order to get to the Moon by 2024, and on the other, we haven't developed new spacesuits since 1977," de Leon told AFP during a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The suits currently worn by American astronauts on the International Space Station—which aren't suitable for surface exploration—were designed in the 1970s, and patched up since. Only a few remain in working condition.

For the time being, NASA is focused on the development of the rocket, capsule and lander to take astronauts to the . The suit will come later.

But for de Leon, NASA's current overall budget of around $21 billion a year isn't enough to meet the deadline of 2024, calling it "too optimistic."

Dangerous dust

De Leon and his teams have developed the NDX-1 suit for Mars and NDX-2 for the Moon.

A spacesuit is "a machine as complex as a spacecraft" because it needs to regulate temperature, pressure and humidity. It also protects astronauts against radiation and holds communications systems.

"All this in a piece of clothing," he said.

"On the one hand, there's this order to get the Moon by 2024, and on the other, we haven't developed new space suits since
"On the one hand, there's this order to get the Moon by 2024, and on the other, we haven't developed new space suits since 1977," de Leon told AFP during a recent visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida

Two kinds are needed: one for floating in , for example, when repairs are needed to the ship's exterior; the other for setting foot on alien worlds, which is de Leon's specialty.

When an astronaut is weightless, the suit is rigid below the waist as one's legs serve almost no purpose.

But on the surface of the Moon or Mars, astronauts need to walk, and their suits need to be light and flexible enough for them to move forward, backward, jump, bend, and handle tools.

Another serious issue is lunar dust.

The Apollo astronauts learned 50 years ago that it is extremely abrasive, penetrating the upper layers of their suits and cutting like glass. "In three days those suits would have been torn apart," said de Leon.

The longest Apollo mission lasted for 75 hours on the Moon, but the astronauts didn't spend all their time outside the lunar module.

Here on Earth, erosion "has over millions and millions of years worn down stones, sand, dust," said de Leon.

But on the Moon, there are no weather systems and no erosion: "The pebbles, to the smallest particles, are very sharp, they cut like a saw."

As for Mars, which the US plans to reach in the 2030s, the soil contains perchlorate, a chemical which is toxic to humans.

"It will be necessary to isolate everything that has been in contact with the outside as soon as the astronauts remove their suits."

Habitats on Mars will need to be designed to carry out decontamination.

For now, de Leon and other specialists across the US await news from NASA, which hasn't yet awarded a contract, and has no deadlines for doing so.


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Jul 20, 2019
The first space suits cost about $200,000. The last ones cost about $15 million.
How much this time?

Jul 20, 2019
The latest and greatest tech goes into the designs of these miniature spacecraft. How much would you pay to keep your astronauts as safe as possible?

Jul 20, 2019
Funny thing - for some reason, I don't detect very much enthusiasm in the current American public for another manned mission to the Moon as there was 50 and more years ago. On the one hand, the US is beset by the illegal infiltration and invasion of the country by outsiders who are jamming the borders to grab the freebies that are offered to them by American dingbat Socialists who want to give the store away at the expense of American taxpayer's hard-earned money.
With such a taking and giving away, how can hard-working American citizens feel peppy and enthused for astronauts riding the dragon to the Moon, while a different kind of dragon is at the southern borders?
While we are shouting "hurrah" to the boys at NASA, men from Central America and other countries are coming to America with their drugs to kill our young people, and their gang members coming here to kill innocent children, and diseases that we thought had been wiped out.

Jul 21, 2019
They should probably just reuse the old spacesuits.

To return to the moon, NASA will need a hundred times more than the current $1.6 billion allocated, considering Apollo cost over $150 billion in 2018 dollars.

Jul 21, 2019
"For now, de Leon and other specialists across the US await news from NASA, which hasn't yet awarded a contract, and has no deadlines for doing so."

No timetable, no deadlines, no contracts. And, it's only five years away? There will be no boots on the moon by 2024, or 2025 or 2026 or . . .

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