WASHINGTON — Collins Aerospace, one of the companies with a NASA award to develop a new generation of spacesuits, has completed a series of tests of that design in a microgravity environment on an aircraft.

The company, which won an Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services, or xEVAS, contract from NASA in 2022, said last week it completed tests called the Crew Capability Assessment. Those tests examined how well a person wearing the suit could perform tasks that an astronaut on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station might do.

Those tests were conducted onboard an aircraft flying parabolic arcs that allows for 15 to 25 seconds of microgravity at a time. That meant breaking down a specific activity “into its most fundamental pieces” that can be done within that time, said Danny Olivas, a former NASA astronaut who is now chief test astronaut at Collins, in an interview.

Examples of those tasks, he said, include entering and exiting an airlock hatch, attaching the suit’s boots to a foot restraint and manipulating connectors. “What we were looking for is to verify the design that we had put forward,” he said. “That design solution does indeed allow for full range of motion through the work envelope that the suit is being built towards.”

Collins planned two days of flights to complete about 20 test objectives, he said, but was able to get them all done in one day. The second day was then used to perform additional engineering evaluations on the suit.

The company is working on a suit intended to replace the decades-old Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits currently used on the ISS under a task order Collins won in December 2022. Collins says its design is intended to be less bulky than the EMU and support a wider range of body types.

“My honest opinion is that it is a far more capable suit,” said Olivas, who performed five spacewalks spanning more than 34 hours during two shuttle missions while at NASA. One example is a redesign of the shoulder joint that enables a greater degree of motion compared to the existing EMU, particularly for smaller people.

Collins Aerospace used the microgravity flights to see how well an astronaut wearing the spacesuit could perform specific tasks. Credit: Collins Aerospace

One example he gave was clipping the boots into the foot restraint. In the old suit, people just getting used to the suit would take 5 to 10 minutes during training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), a large pool used for simulating spacewalks. Olivas said he was able to do in with the new suit within a single 20-second stretch of microgravity on the aircraft.

The next step for the suit is a round of tests in the NBL for longer simulations of spacewalk tasks. Those tests will seek to confirm the suit can perform equal to or better than the EMU on key activities during ISS spacewalks.

While the initial purpose of the suit is to replace the EMU suit on the ISS, Olivas said the company is looking at other applications for it, such as on future commercial space stations that will succeed the ISS.

“We need to understand what the suit can do for a yet-to-be-determined space station,” he said. “Regardless of who gets there first or which system it is, we want to be able to operate in that environment.” He added that Collins has been in discussions with the companies involved in NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program that is supporting development of those commercial stations.

Collins is also looking ahead to potential use of the suit on spacewalks at the lunar Gateway and even on the lunar surface. While the other xEVAS awardee, Axiom Space, has the task order for developing a lunar spacesuit, the two companies have “crossover” task orders from NASA so that Axiom can study use of its suit on the ISS and Collins for Artemis missions.

Olivas said the current suit design is 90% to 95% extensible to one that would be used on the lunar surface. “We also have to be thinking about if we take the suit that works great in micro G, let’s plunk it on the moon; now what does that mean?” he said. “We don’t want to design ourselves into a box of only the micro G environment. We really want to look at all of human exploration for the foreseeable future.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...