The first Artemis spacesuits to be worn on the moon will not return to Earth

15 March 2023 — The history-making spacesuits worn by the first woman and the next American astronaut to walk on the moon will be abandoned on a SpaceX lunar lander instead of being returned to Earth for recycling or museum display.

Axiom Space, the Houston-based space services company selected by NASA to design, build and furnish the spacesuits for the 2025 Artemis III lunar landing mission, unveiled a prototype of its moonsuit during a press event at Space Center Houston on Wednesday (March 15). Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini and Mark Greeley, the company’s extravehicular activity program manager, discussed the fate of the Artemis III spacesuits in a brief interview.

“They will go up on the Starship, and then the crew will transfer from the Orion to the Starship to go down to the surface of the moon,” Greeley told collectSPACE, referring to how the two outfits would first get to the moon.

NASA’s approach to achieving the first moon landing in more than 50 years differs from the last time it did with Apollo, in that the crew launches separately from the lunar lander and then rendezvous in lunar orbit. Four Artemis III astronauts will leave Earth aboard the Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule. At the moon, two of the crew members will transfer to the Human Landing System, a version of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, while the other two will remain in lunar orbit aboard Orion.

At the end of the mission’s surface operations, the two Artemis moonwalkers – including the first woman to land on the moon – will lift off on the Starship and then rendezvous with Orion to return to Earth. Due to weight limitations, only the small stashes of moon rock they bring back from the moon and perhaps some low-mass equipment will be transferred to Orion for the return trip.

“The spacesuits will go back on the Starship and then the Starship will remain in (lunar) orbit indefinitely,” Greeley said.

At least that’s the plan for the two Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) spacesuits used on the Artemis III mission starting Wednesday.

“That’s the current thought process,” Suffredini said. “But it’s several years from now, and things like that come up. So it wouldn’t surprise me if at some point we had a conversation about what might be possible.”

“Maybe gloves or other small parts can come back,” Greeley added.

Once back from the lunar surface, the Starship will lack the necessary fuel to fly back to Earth. The vehicle is designed to be refuelable, but for Artemis III in late 2025, no refueling station is expected to be available.

Whatever can and does come back from the moon in terms of the AxEMUs, Axiom Space will deal with as the company chooses.

“The suits are ours,” Suffredini said. ‘We provide a service and that’s really important because if we didn’t own them we couldn’t sell services to others. That’s the whole concept behind this commercialization that NASA is doing. If NASA builds them, it is difficult to sell services, but when we build it ourselves and provide NASA services, then we can also sell services to others. So we own that asset.”

If the Artemis III AxEMU spacesuits are discarded in lunar orbit, it would not be the first time that astronauts’ clothing from historic NASA missions could not be salvaged.

On the Apollo missions, the astronauts wore the same pressure suits to walk on the moon as they did to launch from and return to Earth, so the suits made the trip around. However, the parts they added to make it possible to work on the lunar surface were often left behind to save weight.

That’s why the boots (or overshoes) that Neil Armstrong wore to take his first “small step” are still at Tranquility Base.

During the Space Shuttle era, the only spacesuits lost were those aboard Challenger and Columbia’s ill-fated missions. When it was decided to retire the winged orbiters, the original thought was that NASA would store the space shuttle’s leftover space suit parts on the International Space Station.

Lacking a vehicle with the required downmass capability, the plan for the extravehicular mobility units (EMUs) was to dispose of them as they aged out of service. The spacesuits would be allowed to burn up with other waste packed aboard used Russian cargo vessels.

Ultimately, it did not materialize as 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 for service on Earth, enabling their continued reuse.

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