Inside look at how NASA tests its new xEMU spacesuits

  • NASA is developing a new spacesuit for the first time in 40 years.
  • It will be used in the upcoming Artemis program — NASA’s plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024.
  • But before it’s flight ready, the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, must go through three stages of rigorous testing.
  • These include underwater tests, temperature tests, and durability tests.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This isn’t your traditional bathing suit. It’s actually NASA’s Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, the first new flight spacesuit developed by the agency in over 40 years. And it’s what the next astronauts will wear when we finally go back to the moon in 2024. But before its boots touch the lunar surface, the suit must be tested, rigorously.

Amy Ross: We know that if we don’t do our job well, we can kill somebody.

Narrator: Testing isn’t just about making sure it functions. It’s about making sure the astronauts who use it come back home safe.

Ross: We are a life-support system. And so that is something that we all know and keep in the back of our minds every day as we do our job, because rule No. 1 is crew members come home.

Narrator: This is Amy. And Amy has to make sure the suit can stand up to a lot. The Artemis program plans to take crews to the moon’s south pole for months at a time, in shadowy regions that could drop to minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit or even lower. And astronauts will have to double as geologists, especially given NASA’s discovery of the presence of ice on the moon, something that could help fuel rockets, turning the moon into a gas station en route to Mars. So the xEMU testing process has been long and grueling, with some tests run twice the recommended amount just to be safe.

It’s all broken up into three phases. Development, design verification, and qualification. The first phase is all about finalizing a design. Amy and her team try out a bunch of different lower-quality components before deciding which design to actually build.

Ross: You now, it’s like a car. Is your car’s steering good? Well, until you put it in a car, it’s hard to tell. We can put different shoulders in and see, does this shoulder work better than this shoulder?

Narrator: Once that’s all figured out, the suit moves to the design-verification stage.

Ross: The idea is that we’re going to stay on the moon for months at a time. And that means that you need to be very flexible and capable, and you need to be durable.

Narrator: Now, we’ve been to the moon before, but not for this long, not this location, and not with the knowledge we have now.

Ross: We’re being asked to go to permanently shadowed regions because there are gases in those places that stay very, very cold. And I’m talking, like, minus-370-degrees-Fahrenheit cold.

Narrator: They won’t be working in temperatures that cold, but the suit does have to withstand temperatures as high as 250 degrees Fahrenheit and as low as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit, a wider range than ever before. To make sure it holds up, NASA tests the suit in what’s basically a big, vacuum-sealed oven/freezer, both manned and unmanned.

Ross: Chamber B here at Johnson Space Center is a human-rated thermal vacuum chamber we’ll use. We’ll go in there with a portable life-support system on our back, then we’ll test the suit through its different phases of operation to make sure that it does hold up and operates in the vacuum and in the thermal environments that we’ll see.

Narrator: Along with temperature controlled, the suit must be durable. When we first went to the moon, scientists were concerned that the regolith-covered lunar surface wouldn’t support the weight of people and machines. But the real issue with the regolith is that it’s sharp and dusty, something that could really muck up the fine-tuned workings of a spacesuit. So, where’s the best place to test dust resistance?

Ross: In an environment that’s dusty and rocky.

Narrator: This is what durability testing in the Arizona desert looks like.

Ross: And that kind of tells you what parts of your suit are affected by the dust, does it have a problem with the dust so much? Is your mobility system really able to walk over this rough terrain? Those kinds of things.

Narrator: But the desert simulates the terrain of the moon and not a lot else. In order to test mobility in lunar gravity, the engineers have to move someplace wetter.

Ross: Like the neutral buoyancy laboratory, our big pool.

Narrator: In this giant pool, 40 feet deep, astronauts can see what it feels like to be on the moon, to a point.

Ross: It’s not really like moon gravity, because as you try to walk, you’re having to push through the water. But as a reasonable analog to do some activities, it’s a good one.

Narrator: Activities like ladder climbing, using tools, and ceremonially planting the American flag. These tests let engineers collect objective data about the suit’s life-support system and mobility, but also subjective data about the crew’s experience using it.

Ross: Our suit’s not done until they say it’s done and they like it and they think they can use it to do their job.

Narrator: Now, qualification testing includes a lot of the same stuff as design verification, but there are a few key differences.

Ross: Part of it is the paperwork.

Narrator: Things get a little more strict in the qualification stage.

Ross: We have a lot of caretaking to make sure that we understand everything that is done with flight hardware. You change a screw out, there’s a piece of paperwork, it says this new screw got put in on this date to this particular place.

Narrator: Since this is the stage that lower-quality test hardware gets swapped out for the fancy flight-ready stuff, testing can slow down a bit. But in the end…

Ross: When you do qualification testing, you’re really using that as a proof for everybody to put in front of everybody that says this suit is good to fly in space.

Narrator: And once they get the green light…

Ross: That’s when you load it onto a vehicle, take it up to space, and use it in a mission.

Narrator: NASA plans to send the xEMU to use on the International Space Station in 2023 to collect flight data and confirm the suit’s overall performance. It’s important to note that this isn’t actually considered a test.

Ross: At NASA, we need to feel like we’re very confident that that hardware is going to work the way it was required to work before we fly it. So we don’t usually go into flight calling it a test.

Narrator: Instead, it’s a flight-data mission. And it will be one of the last major milestones before the xEMU is ready to land on the moon. Spacesuit testing can take years, thousands of elbow bends, and even more tests than we’re able to show here. But it’s all necessary to ensure the comfort, functionality, and, most of all, safety for NASA’s astronauts. Oh, and I know you’re probably curious about how they test the suit’s bathroom situation. Well, NASA has basically created a diaper.

Ross: And we tend to use simulated urine, just to keep things tidier.

Narrator: There you have it. And subscribe to our YouTube channel so you’ll never miss a space secret.

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