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NASA's new plug and play spacesuit

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The space agency awards a $500 million contract for development of a suit astronauts may wear to the moon or Mars.

Constellation Spacesuit System Engineering Project Manager Terry Hill

When you have a big outing planned, you simply must have the right outfit. Such is the logic behind the $500 million contract awarded to develop NASA’s next spacesuit. The suit will not only outfit astronauts outside the International Space Station and on the planned 2020 trip to the moon, but it will be able to sustain life for up to 120 hours and will be suitable for trips to Mars.

“Without the suit there is no manned mission,” said Terry Hill, NASA’s spacesuit system engineering project manager for Constellation, the agency’s program for exploration. “We’re working [with] what we’ve learned from past programs like Apollo and Space Shuttle, and we were challenged by Constellation program management to develop a one-suit system to do it all.”

The new suit will have a plug and play design so that different modules (arms, legs, feet) can be used interchangeably with different torsos. (Think of it as several outfits for the price of one.) The suit will be lighter weight, more flexible and more breathable than existing suits and will be equipped with a computer that links directly back to Earth. (The suits will also be easier to put on; existing suits take three hours to don.) The suit is being designed and developed by Oceaneering International, which partnered with David Clark Company, veterans of spacesuit development.

"It's one reconfigurable suit that can do the job of three specialized suits," said Hill in Technology Review. He said 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 a computer and will act like a node on the Internet, relaying data back to Earth.

Currently, astronauts wear two different suits—one for launch and ascent phases of spaceflight, called the Advanced Crew Escape Suit; and another for doing jobs outside the space shuttle or International Space Station, called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit. The new suit will consist of two configurations. The first is similar to the current space shuttle escape suit, and the second uses the same limb sections, which snap onto a new reinforced torso. For lunar excursions, astronauts would also wear an outer garment to protect them from micrometeorites in the harsh lunar atmosphere.

Click here to read about Space Adventures’ lunar mission.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure