In 2024, the first woman and the next man will land on the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis Program. This will take brand-new spacesuit designs and the facility in which to test them—both of which are being put through their paces at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
To the Moon and Beyond
The Artemis mission will be the first time since 1972 that humans have set foot on the moon, and this time, NASA intends for them to stay awhile. That’s because learning how to live on the moon, extract its resources, and build habitable structures will be a key step in the agency’s eventually journey to Mars. So the mission will require longer moonwalks than those undertaken by astronauts during the Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s.
That’s why astronauts are now being placed in suits and dunked into the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at Johnson. Not only are the suits being tested, but so is the pool itself. The agency wants to figure out the best facilities to test out new tech and teach one-day moon explorers how to use it.
“This early testing will help determine the best compliment of facilities for hardware development and requirements for future Artemis training and missions,” said Daren Welsh, extravehicular activity test lead for these Artemis preparation test runs. “At the same time, we are going to be able to gather valuable feedback on spacewalk tools and procedures that will help inform some of the objectives for the missions.”
While in the deep pool, which simulates a low-gravity environment, astronauts have already executed several tasks, including planting an American flag, picking up samples of lunar dirt and rocks, and examining a lunar lander.
While doing so, they’ve been wearing prototypes of NASA’s Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), spacesuits that are improvements on those worn by astronauts from both the Apollo missions and missions to the International Space Station. The suits have improved mobility features, better communication systems in the helmet, dust-tolerant features to withstand the Moon’s glass-like soil, and they can withstand temperatures ranging from -250°F in the shade to 250°F in the sun.
In addition to testing out the pool’s use as a training tool, NASA is also having its astronauts train in Johnson’s rock yard, which is kind of a movie set of the moon simulating its surface. Not only does the yard help fine-tune tools and mobility tech, but it’s a place for astronauts to work on communication with mission control.
“We have experience with a space station, but we need to determine how we’re going to train the crew for surface operations during these specific missions,” Welsh said. “There is a lot of work to do to get the facilities ready to work for lunar missions and figure out how to facilitate the training.”
You can learn more about the Artemis mission in the following NASA video.