Engineering Faculty Help NASA Develop Spacesuits for Exploring the Moon and Beyond

Astronaut in space suit
To safely conduct a “spacewalk”—what NASA calls an extravehicular activity, or EVA— an astronaut working outside the orbiting International Space Station must wear a protective, multilayered, pressurized spacesuit, as shown here in this NASA photo.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Whether it is exploring the surface of another planet or doing repairs on the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft, being outside in space is one of the most dangerous tasks an astronaut can undertake. Aside from the vacuum of space, there are hazards from solar radiation and high-speed impacts from micrometeoroids and space debris, as well as temperature extremes — ranging from 230 degrees Fahrenheit on the astronaut’s sunlit side to minus 250 degrees F on the shadow side.

With future missions to the moon and Mars planned during the Artemis program, NASA is designing the next generation of enhanced spacesuits, known as Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units, or xEMUs, which will offer greater mobility, flexibility and dexterity than current spacesuits used in Earth orbit.

Among the researchers nationwide who are part of this effort are Asst. Profs. Jay Hoon Park and Davide Masato of the Department of Plastics Engineering. The two faculty members and their team of student researchers are using thermoplastic manufacturing techniques to redesign the spacesuit’s rigid internal structure for future lunar and Mars missions.

“The project is funded with a $250,000 grant through NASA’s Lightweight and Robust Exploration Space Suit [LARESS] program, which aims to develop a tough, reusable spacesuit structure to safely explore hazardous terrains,” says Park.

LARESS focuses on the rigid structures, particularly the Hard Upper Torso (HUT), that dictate the suit’s sizing and locations of the joints and bearings. The HUT is a central component of the spacesuit: It is a vest made of aluminum or fiberglass that encloses the astronaut’s chest and back. The astronaut’s helmet, two arm assemblies and the lower torso assembly (the spacesuit pants, boots and lower half of the waist closure), as well as the primary life support system backpack and its display and controls module, attach to the HUT.

Masato says that, aside from thermoplastic materials being lighter in weight, the team’s redesign allows it to fine-tune the HUT’s structural stiffness and rigidity at specific locations, using thermoplastic composite reinforcements.

“While the original HUT design was never meant for thermoplastic injection molding, our team was able to apply the technology while still complying with NASA’s stringent structural and functional requirements,” he says.

As a proof of concept, the team fabricated and tested in-house a section of the HUT that incorporated fiber-reinforced composite inserts and neat thermoplastic resin.

“Our new design required overmolding of the neat thermoplastic over fiber-reinforced inserts placed inside the mold. This created a strong bond at the interface between the two materials,” Masato says.

Plastics Engineering Asst. Profs. Jay Hoon Park, right, and Davide Masato
Plastics Engineering Asst. Profs. Jay Hoon Park, right, and Davide Masato are conducting research to redesign the spacesuit’s rigid internal structure, particularly the Hard Upper Torso, for future lunar and Mars missions.
He says the overmolding process can also be used to replace other metal structural components, including those used in the aerospace and automotive industries and in wind turbines.

According to Park, the NASA grant was awarded to the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), a Manufacturing USA network institute, as a preliminary feasibility analysis to test the HUT’s manufacturing and mechanical performance.

“UMass Lowell’s share of the award is $160,000, with IACMI as the prime contractor,” says Park.

Aside from UML, other IACMI collaborators include Covestro AG in Germany and Proper Group in Michigan, as well as Michigan State University; the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Plasmatreat USA, Inc., in Elgin, Illinois.

Assisting Park and Masato in the lab research on campus are Ph.D. students Matthew Drew and Taiyo Yamaguchi.

Reducing Payload Weight

When Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, they were wearing bulky, pressurized suits made from 25 layers of protective materials. With its life support backpack, each suit weighed about 180 pounds (although it felt like only 30 pounds in the reduced gravity of the moon’s surface).

Today, it costs approximately $1,000 to $10,000 to put a pound of payload into low Earth orbit, depending on the rocket used. The price tag for sending astronauts and supplies to the moon and beyond is far higher. That is why reducing payload weight is key to keeping the launch cost down. The same goes for the spacesuit — NASA wants a lightweight yet rugged xEMU that does not compromise the astronaut’s mobility and safety.

“Making products lighter, in general, has been the trend for many manufacturing sectors over the years,” Park notes. “What used to be CNC-machined metal parts has since moved toward plastics manufacturing.”

Advances in manufacturing technologies, 3D printing and new composite materials have helped make the transition go smoothly.

Park adds: “For astronauts, having less weight burden while maintaining the suit’s structural integrity will aid them in safely exploring the moon and Mars in the near future.”