When 2020 rolls around, and astronauts are stepping onto the Moon or Mars, they'll be doing so in brand-new duds. And the price tag makes haute couture look low-budget: NASA just recently awarded a $500 million, 6.5 year development contract to Oceaneering International, which usually makes deep-sea exploration gear, and David Clark Company, which has made space suits for 50 years.
What, exactly, does $500 million get you? A whole hell of a lot of engineering wizardry. Tech Review got one of first ever looks at the working prototypes of the Constellation system. (Excellent video here.) But the cleverest thing isn't that it'll sustain life for 150 hours in an emergency. Or link directly back to earth, with an onboard computer. Rather, it's the suit's modularity, which saves huge amounts of weight.
Previously, to fly inside a rocket/space shuttle or do a space/moon walk required two separate suits. (The latter weighing 300 pounds alone.) By contrast, the Constellation has arms and legs that can be used for any mission. But the torso can be switched out, for either greater mobility inside a craft, or greater ruggedness outside it. In addition, for space walks, a kevlar sleeve protects the exterior from tiny meteors.
Every detail of the design—from the flexible but firm joints to the increased use of high-tech fabrics rather than hard, heavy components—saves weight.
Which is vitally important because every pound sent into orbit costs tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, the $500 million budget should eventually save far more down the line.