Work on human space exploration may appear to have settled into the background, but it has not gone away. In fact, NASA recently completed a spacesuit design challenge as part of the development of the next generation of spacesuits. After the public cast 233,431 total votes, the “Technology” option won NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit design challenge with just over 63 percent of the total vote. This design now will be incorporated into the final version of the suit, which is expected to be ready for testing in November.
NASA’s Z-2 suit is the newest prototype in its next-generation spacesuit platform, the Z-series. With the agency laser focused on a path to Mars, work to develop the technologies astronauts one day will use to live and work on Mars has already begun. Each iteration of the Z-series will advance new technologies that one day will be used in a suit worn by the first humans to set foot on Mars.
Key improvements in the Z-2 suit over the previous Z-1 include its hard composite upper torso, which provides the long-term durability that a planetary Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit will require. The shoulder and hip joints differ significantly based on extensive evaluations performed during the last two years with the Z-1 to look at different ways of optimizing mobility of these complex joints. Lastly, the boots are much closer in nature to those that would be found on a suit ready for space, and the materials used on the Z-2 are compatible with a full-vacuum environment.
Besides the typical fit checks and mobility evaluations, NASA currently is planning a very comprehensive test campaign for the Z-2 suit. Engineers will conduct multiple vacuum chamber tests, including one series at full vacuum, mimicking the lack of atmosphere found in space. The suit will be tested at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the huge indoor pool used to train astronauts to spacewalk. Further testing at a site at Johnson that imitates the rocky Martian surface will help evaluate the suit’s mobility, comfort and performance. Ultimately, all of these tests will guide engineers in designing the Z-3.
With the Z-2, NASA will employ cover-layer design elements, such as electroluminescent wiring, never used before in a spacesuit. The designs that were available for voting were produced in collaboration with ILC Dover, the primary suit vendor, and Philadelphia University. The intent of the designs was to highlight certain mobility features for testing. To take it a step further, NASA offered the public the opportunity to decide which of three candidates will be built.
Because the Z-series is still in the prototype (nonflight) phase, the design won’t be making a trip to space. Although the cover layer of a nonflight suit still performs an important function in ground-based testing, it’s not a fabric that would be used in space. The cover protects the lower layers and technical details from abrasion and snags during testing. It also serves to provide the suit with an aesthetic appeal. The cover layer on flight suits used for spacewalks performs many other important functions like protecting the spacewalker from micrometeorite strikes, the extreme temperatures in space and the harmful effects of radiation. These requirements drive selection of specific high-performance materials and design details that aren’t necessary at this stage in a prototype suit.
NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit is a project under the Advanced Exploration Systems Division which pioneers the development and demonstration of new technologies for future human missions beyond Earth’s orbit as part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.