The history-making spacesuits worn by the first woman and next American astronaut to walk on the moon are being left on a SpaceX lunar lander rather than being returned to Earth for reuse or museum display.
Axiom Space, the Houston-based space company chosen by NASA to design, build and outfit the spacesuits for the 2025 Artemis 3 lunar landing mission, unveiled a prototype of its lunar robe (opens in new tab) during a press event at Space Center Houston on Wednesday (March 15). Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini and Mark Greeley, the company’s spacewalk program manager, discussed the fate of the Artemis 3 spacesuits (opens in new tab) in a short interview.
“They will go up with Starship, and then the crew will switch from Orion to Starship to go down to the lunar surface,” Greeley told collectSPACE.com, referring to how the two garments would get to the moon first.
NASA’s approach to achieving the first lunar landing in more than 50 years differs from the last time it went with Apollo in that the crew will launch separately from the lunar lander and then meet in lunar orbit. Four Artemis 3 astronauts will depart Earth aboard the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule. Once on the Moon, two of the crew members will transfer to the human landing system, a version of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft (opens in new tab)while the other two remain aboard Orion in lunar orbit.
At the end of the mission’s surface operations (opens in new tab), the two Artemis Moonwalkers – including the first woman to land on the moon – will take off on Starship and then meet up with Orion to return to Earth. For weight reasons, only the small supplies of lunar rock they bring back from the lunar surface, and perhaps some low-mass equipment, will be brought to Orion for the journey home.
“The space suits go back to Starship, and then Starship stays in [lunar] orbit endlessly,” said Greeley.
Related: Axiom Space unveils prototype space suit for Artemis astronauts on the moon
At least that is the plan for the two space suits of the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU), which will be used on the Artemis 3 mission from Wednesday.
“That’s the current thought process,” Suffredini said. “But that’s a few years from now, and things like that are emerging. So it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point we talked about what might be possible.”
“Maybe gloves or other small parts will come back,” Greeley added.
Once Starship has returned from the lunar surface, it will lack the necessary fuel to fly back to Earth. The vehicle is designed to be refueled, but a refueling station is not expected to be available for Artemis 3 in late 2025.
Whatever can and will come back from the moon regarding the AxEMUs will be left to Axiom Space at the company’s option.
“The suits are ours,” Suffredini said. “We offer a service and that’s really important because if they didn’t belong to us we couldn’t sell services to others. That’s the whole concept behind this commercialization thing that NASA is doing. If NASA builds them, it’s difficult to sell services, but if we build them ourselves and provide NASA services, then we can also sell services to others. So we own that asset.”
Should the Artemis 3 AxEMU space suits be disposed of in lunar orbit, it would not be the first time that the astronaut outfits from historic NASA missions could not be salvaged.
On the Apollo missions, NASA astronauts wore the same pressure garments to walk on the moon as they did to launch from and return to Earth, so the suits made the round trip (opens in new tab). However, the parts they added to enable work on the lunar surface were often left behind to save weight.
As such, the boots (or shoe covers) that Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong wore to take his first “small step” are still on Tranquility Base.
Related: Apollo 11: Everything you need to know about the historic moon landing
During the space shuttle era, the only space suits aboard the ill-fated Challenger and Columbia missions were lost. When the decision was made to retire the winged orbiters, the original thought was that NASA would store the shuttle’s leftover spacesuit parts on the International Space Station (opens in new tab).
Lacking a vehicle with the required downmass capability, the plan was to discard the extravehicular mobility units (EMUs) when they are out of service. The space suits were allowed to burn (opens in new tab) with other waste packed aboard spent Russian cargo ships.
Ultimately, that didn’t materialize when NASA turned to its commercial partners to fly crew and cargo to and from the space station. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has since been used to land spacesuit components on Earth for servicing, allowing for their continued reuse (opens in new tab).
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