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NASA is gearing up for a return to the moon, and that’s going to require a whole new wardrobe. After all, astronauts haven’t stepped out on the lunar surface in decades, and spacesuit technology has advanced considerably. To that end, NASA unveiled its next-generation lunar exploration suit earlier this year, and now it’s testing it with the help of an underwater laboratory

We’ve all seen the suits astronauts wore on the Space Shuttle and during spacewalks outside the International Space Station. That suit, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), doesn’t offer the capabilities NASA wants for the Artemis missions. The new spacesuit, known as the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), will be the first new design for NASA in more than 40 years. It sports a raft of major upgrades over the EMU, including redundant life support, better mobility, and a redesigned communication system. 

Of course, none of that will matter if the suit doesn’t work correctly. While it’s designed for use on the moon, we have to test it here on Earth. That’s where Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) comes into play. It’s a massive underwater testing facility with a total volume in excess of six million gallons — that’s almost 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This allows NASA to simulate low-gravity environments where astronauts can practice a variety of tasks in the xEMU. NASA says these underwater tests are essential because they can replicate the limited mobility of a real mission. 

NASA is also testing the xEMU in the “rock yard” at Johnson Space Center (above). This outdoor facility has several types of simulated terrain including craters, and you guessed it, lots of rocks. This environment helps NASA simulate EVA missions on the lunar surface to ensure the suit can hold up under the strain. NASA’s Aerospace Safety Council believes xEMU development is running on schedule, which is more than we can say for the next moon rocket. 

The xEMU has is a vital piece of the Artemis program, but it has been overshadowed by the delayed Space Launch System. Currently, NASA hopes to have an uncrewed demo launch in late 2021. The first crewed lunar flyby will take place around 2023, and a landing could be as soon as 2024. These dates all assume no further delays. But hey, at least astronauts on the Artemis missions will look good and be more mobile than Apollo astronauts.

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