April 25, 2024

The eras of human spaceflight are visually defined by spacesuits. The bright white Apollo suit on the lunar surface, the silver of the Mercury pressure suits, and even the bright orange “pumpkin suits” of the Space Shuttle era created definitive looks for space exploration.

As we enter NASA’s Artemis era, a new spacesuit will define humanity’s return to the Moon. That suit is being created by Axiom Space in Houston, Texas.

The Artemis III mission will land the first humans on the lunar surface since Apollo 17 in 1972, so Axiom has more than 50 years of innovations and technological advancement to draw from.

“These suits are very much advanced over what was created in Apollo, but that is no slight to the Apollo engineers,” Axiom’s EVA deputy program manager Russell Ralston said. “Knowing what it takes to build spacesuits, I’m amazed still at what they were able to accomplish.”

Axiom unveiled their first Artemis prototype suit to the public in March 2023. The goals of the new design were to provide increased flexibility, greater protection against the lunar environment, and more scientific tool options. Axiom says the new suit will allow for:

  • an increased tolerance to lunar dust
  • astronauts to walk longer distances and better manipulate objects thanks to a combination of soft and hard joints
  • astronauts to walk on the cold surfaces of the Moon at its south pole
  • more size and adjustability options to fit a wide range of crew members
  • increased safety with multiple levels of redundancies
  • HD video to be captured from the suit helmet

The design team took the lessons learned from legacy spacesuits and created a 21st-century design using new technologies like computer aided design (CAD) software and 3D printing combined with traditional techniques like sewing.

“We start with the design in the digital world, and depending on what the part is, we’ll produce that either through 3D printing or soft wear manufacturing and patterning and stitching together,” Ralston said. “Then we’ll go test it.”

Ralston credits tools like 3D printing with allowing them to create this suit comparatively fast. It was crucial for quickly iterating on the designs. He estimates from starting the design process to a prototype suit sitting in the lab took his team only 8–9 months, compared to years for past suits.

“Portions of the backpack that you see on that suit were 3D printed. And just to be clear, that’s not just because it was a prototype,” Ralston said. “We do have 3D-printed, additively manufactured parts in our flight design. We will have some printers in house that we’ll be using to produce those parts certified for flight.”

The final design will have both 3D-printed parts that are internal to the space suit, and some that are exposed to the space environment. Based on the needs of each part, Axiom uses everything from inexpensive Prusa printers to much more expensive printers that can print reinforced plastics and metals.

“The print parts usually take a day or two, but some can take longer if they are particularly large or complex,” Ralston said. “Most of the printed parts have loose tolerances, but if we need tighter tolerances we machine them after the print process in some cases.”

All parts printed for spaceflight must follow NASA’s technical standard for additive manufactured parts (NASA-STD-6030) which outlines all requirements for using 3D printing in the design, fabrication, and testing of parts for crewed and uncrewed missions.

So is this really a black spacesuit? No. The prototype’s black cover is shielding some of the proprietary aspects of the suit underneath. The final product will be a necessary white color to assist with temperature control.

However, the creation of the cover was an opportunity for a sci-fi collaboration. Costume designer Esther Marquis from the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind worked with Axiom to develop the sleek black look.
“One of the things I love about working on spacesuits is it is this perfect blend of art and science,” Ralston said. “While there is a lot of science behind designing a spacesuit, especially for a lot of the life support equipment, when we make what we call the pressure garment, there’s no textbook. There’s no scientific formula that’s going to tell you exactly how to design that to fit all these different people.”

Spacesuits are a cross between a personal spacecraft and clothing, making sewing an essential piece of the manufacturing puzzle as well. But the sewing skills required for this type of creation are unique.

“Spacesuit stitching and manufacturing is more precise than anything else out there,” Ralston said. “We’ve yet to find another industry that holds the tolerances that we need and has the same level of quality that we require for making spacesuits.”

This carefulness is evident when you walk into their sewing labs. The labs are filled with single needle, double needle, off-arm, post, bar-tack, serger, and zig-zag sewing machines, all used for the creation of the suits. In typical clothing factories, the buzz of machines is constant and fast. Axiom’s sewing lab is almost dead silent. Some of the sewers even turn the machines by hand to achieve the level of precision needed.

These expert sewists are recruited from many different backgrounds to bring their skills to the space industry.

“We’ve got people that worked in the ballet and theater industry. We’ve got people that worked on space suits previously. We have people that worked critical military sewing applications, such as parachutes or things like that. They come from all walks of life,” Ralston said.

Zach Paugh is one of the Axiom sewing techs who worked on the suit, and cannot wait to see his creation launch.

“It’s like a little bit of each of us is going up there with the astronauts, and a little bit of our mentors, a little bit of our family,” Paugh said. “It’s more than just ourselves. It’s everyone before us and everyone after us.”

This article appeared in Make: Volume 86.