NASA’s Z-1 Spacesuit Looks Remarkably Like Buzz Lightyear’s (Videos)
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas — To infinity and beyond! Not a bad battle cry for NASA, don’t you think? A tad derivative, perhaps. But with NASA’s gaze set on the Moon, Mars and beyond, it does fit.
NASA’s Catherine Ragin Williams writes: “When our astronauts set foot on alien surfaces such as a near-Earth object or the surface of Mars, it will be in part because Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) spacesuit teams have paved the way for the explorers’ spacesuit boots.”
The Z-1 prototype spacesuit and Portable Life Support System (PLSS) 2.0 test article have undergone a battery of tests to make way for their successors — future iterations that will be tested in a humanrated thermal vacuum chamber and eventually beyond.
Z-1: A Mobility Marvel
The Z-1 is a rear-entry prototype spacesuit that represents a potential soft exploration extravehicular activity (EVA) suit configuration, though its description “is a bit of a misnomer,” said Spacesuit Engineer Kate Mitchell. “The suit actually contains severall hard mobility elements. The term ‘soft’ is intended to convey the idea that the primary structures of the suit are pliable fabrics when unpressurized.”
This prototype suit is the first in a series being developed under the AES suit project.
“The goal is by the 2014/2015 timeframe to have a new vacuumcompatible exploration-type suit,” Mitchell said. “The Z-1 was developed as a test bed to go and test various technologies and mobility joints so we can further define our architecture going forward.”
What has been learned from the first iteration of the spacesuit will be harvested for Z-2, the next generation prototype.
“The data we’re gathering now will feed tools that will help us build better suits in the future,” said Amy Ross, lead of the Space Suit Assembly Technology Development team.
It’s a big deal for the group, because this kind of designing, building and testing hasn’t been done for about a decade.
Interview with Amy Ross, Spacesuit Engineer
“We haven’t built a newflight system since the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit),” Ross said. “The last major prototype we developed was in 1992.” The other major milestone is getting the hardware to the fidelity needed to test in the human-rated thermal vacuum chamber.
“We haven’t done that with a prototype suit since the shuttle suits,” Ross said. “We’re really learning a lot.”
One of the sophisticated concepts going forward involves suitport operations. Suitports enable the suited astronaut to attach to the back of a rover, as oftentimes seen in Desert Research and Technology Studies demonstrations.
“To enable suitport operations, the suit has to be able to equalize with the cabin pressure,” Mitchell said. “If the cabin pressure of the rover is 8.3 psi, we’d have to have a suit that would be able to operate at that pressure in order to get out the door.”
The technology required for suitport operations also benefits astronauts another way—shorter prebreathe times.
“It’s less prep time,” Mitchell said, which means astronauts can spend more time exploring other worlds than preparing for their spacewalks.
PLSS 2.0: No Ordinary Backpack
The PLSS is a backpack on the spacesuit that, in conjunction with the Pressure Garment, carries out all life-support functions for the crew member. Those functions include providing oxygen, removing carbon dioxide and trace contaminants, providing ventilation flow and cooling the crew member and onboard electronics.
NASA Public Affairs Officer Brandi Dean Discusses the Z1 Spacesuit
“Our group is developing a new advanced technology PLSS that aims to be more robust, less sensitive to contamination, use less consumables and provide increased capabilities as compared with the current EMU PLSS,” said PLSS Engineer Carly Watts.
PLSS 2.0 is the group’s first attempt to package the backpack with components in a flight-like configuration. Last year’s project, PLSS 1.0, “was where we tied all of our developmental components together with commercial off-the-shelf hardware to simulate the full functionality of the advanced PLSS design in a bench-top environment,” Watts said.
This new PLSS has been a long time coming, but the wait will be worth it.
“We have been operating the EMU PLSS on orbit for 30 years now, and because it was developed prior to that, the technology is 40 years old,” Watts said.
The older components are being switched out. For example, the EMU PLSS uses a sublimator for its cooling function.
“The sublimator is extremely sensitive to contamination and can only be used in a hard vacuum environment,” Watts said.
So that we can keep the Red Planet on our radar, the team is using a new tool called the Spacesuit Water Membrane Evaporator.
“It’s a completely different technology that we fostered and developed in house,” Watts said. “The design gets the same performance as the sublimator, but it can be used in a Martian environment. It can be frozen without damaging the unit, and it’s not particularly sensitive to contamination.”
Also on tap is the need for less consumables. The current EMU system requires lithium hydroxide and metal oxide (MetOx) canisters to remove carbon dioxide (CO2). MetOx canisters, in particular, must be “baked” out in an oven on the space station for about 14 hours to be reused again.
“We’re looking to replace those capabilities with a Rapid Cycle Amine swingbed,” Watts said. “Every few minutes it will cycle and regenerate itself to remove CO2 real time during a spacewalk … so CO2 removal capability will no longer be a consumable.”
It also won’t be a time-limiting factor, which translates to longer adventures in spacewalking.
Tests performed have included isolated and functional range of motion data capture, Z‐1 waist and hip testing, joint torque testing, CO2 washout testing, fit checks and subject familiarizations, an exploration vehicle aft deck and suitport controls interface evaluation, delta pressure suitport tests including pressurized suit don and doff, and gross mobility and suitport ingress and egress demonstrations in reduced gravity.
The Z-1 and PLSS 2.0 are not yet at the stage where they can merge. But future iterations of the suit and backpack will join forces in the human-rated thermal vacuum chamber, where they will bring us even closer—to flight.
“The AES program has given us the tools to develop advanced EVA systems in a lean environment with low programmatic overhead,” said Ben Greene, project manager for Advanced EVA Systems Development. “We intend to take full advantage of that opportunity to push EVA technology farther than it has been in decades.”