The new space suit will consist of two configurations. The first is similar to the current space shuttle escape suit, and it is designed for launch, reentry, and emergency operations in zero gravity and on Earth. It’s soft and allows for mobility in the event of pressure loss or in case crew members need to abort.
When existing space suits are pressurized, they tend to stiffen. For the Constellation suits, Barry’s team has built in panels of material at the joints–shoulders, elbows, and knees–that keep the volume inside the suit constant, allowing astronauts to easily move. David Clark engineers are also developing breathable materials for the suit, making them more comfortable than the conventional urethane- or neoprene-coated nylon fabrics.
The second configuration of the Constellation space suit, which will be used for lunar excursions, uses the same arms, legs, boots, and helmet. These are snapped onto a new reinforced torso equipped with life support, electronics, and communication systems. Astronauts will also put on an outer garment to protect them from the harsh lunar atmosphere, including micrometeorites. Engineers are also working on enhanced materials to combat the very fine lunar dust, which, as NASA learned from the Apollo missions, can be problematic and hazardous to the crew.
The new design will eliminate many of the hard elements that add weight to current space suits and can injure the crew in the event of a rough landing. Instead, engineers are using lightweight composite structures. Furthermore, astronauts will be able to get in and out of the suit more quickly through a rear zippered entrance, or, for the lunar suit, a rear entry hatch. The current suits are made of two pieces that take three hours and a helping hand to put together.
Barry says that a single modular suit will be cheaper to manufacture and will reduce launch mass and logistical complexity. David Clark Company has built an early prototype that will undergo testing next week at NASA with the new crew exploration vehicle, called Orion, which is also being developed for the Constellation program.
Hill says the first completed suit will be ready for testing in September, and the final suit design will be ready by 2013 and ready for flight in 2015. The lunar suit will incorporate OLED displays and a computer, and will act like a node on the Internet, relaying data back to Earth.
In the coming weeks, the Obama administration will make a decision on the future of U.S. human spaceflight, which could significantly change the direction of the Constellation program. “The bottom line is that if we are going to do manned missions, we need a new space suit,” says Hill. And, he adds, “we have made the suit modular for that reason; if they decide to skip the moon and go to Mars, it does not change our architecture.”