Learning More About NASA’s New Spacesuits

Following my recent Sciency Words post on “bunny hopping,” I got a lot of questions about NASA’s new spacesuit design.  I wasn’t really able to answer those questions, so today I’d like to share a video from someone who’s a little better qualified to talk about this stuff.

Scott Manly is an astrophysicist and YouTuber.  On his channel, he plays a lot of space-themed video games and talks about scientific accuracies (or inaccuracies) in said video games.  I started watching Mr. Manly back when I was obsessed with Kerbal Space Program.

I think the big takeaway from this video is that NASA’s new spacesuit is not quite finished yet.  It’s still a work in progress.  That might explain some of the confusion over what the new spacesuit is supposed to do for astronauts once they’re on the Moon.

One thing I’m still wondering about: the new space boots.  Several articles I looked at (like this one) describe the new boots as “hiking-style boots with flexible soles.”  That doesn’t really satisfy my curiosity about these boots, so I’ll have to do more research on that.

Sciency Words: Bunny Hopping

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

BUNNY HOPPING

So yesterday I was reading up on the latest spacesuit design from NASA, and I came across a term that I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing before.  In this article from Space Daily, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is quoted as saying: “If we remember the Apollo generation, we remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they bunny hopped on the surface of the Moon.”

This left me wondering: do people really use the term “bunny hopping” to describe how Apollo astronauts moved about on the Moon?  I tried really hard to trace the etymology of this term.  I didn’t find much, but honestly, when you see clips like this one, it’s easy to figure out where the term came from.

In my previous research on this topic, I’ve seen this method of locomotion referred to as “loping-mode” or “skipping-mode.”  But sure, we can call it “bunny hopping” too.  So why did astronauts do this?

Well, there’s something about walking that most of us, in our daily lives, don’t realize: Earth’s gravity does some of the work for us.  When you take a step, first you lift your foot off the ground, then you extend your leg, and then… well, try to stop yourself at this point.  With your leg extended forward like that, you’ll find that your center of gravity has shifted, and you can feel the force of gravity trying to pull you through the remainder of your walk cycle.

So walking feels like a natural and efficient way for us humans to get around because Earth’s gravity helps us.  Take Earth’s gravity away, and walking suddenly feels awkward and cumbersome.  In lunar gravity, which is approximately ⅙ of Earth’s gravity, the Apollo astronauts found other methods of locomotion to be more comfortable, more natural.  In this clip, we hear audio chatter of astronauts disagreeing about whether “hopping” or “loping” is a better way to get around.

Personal preference seems to be important here, both in how astronauts “walked” on the Moon and in how they described the experience of this new kind of “walking.”

Getting back to the new spacesuits from NASA, the new design features a dramatically improved range of motion.  The next astronauts on the Moon will have a much easier time getting around, and according to Administrator Bridenstine there will be no need for bunny hopping.  “Now we’re going to be able to walk on the surface of the Moon, which is very different from the suits of the past.”

And that’s got me confused.  I’m really not sure what Bridenstine means by that statement because, as I just explained, it was the Moon’s gravity—more so than the spacesuits—that made Apollo era astronauts feel the need to “bunny hop” on the Moon.  The new spacesuits, with their improved range of motion, should help astronauts in the new Artemis program avoid gaffs like these…

But without altering the Moon’s gravity, I don’t see any way to avoid “bunny hopping.”

Sciency Words: Artemis

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

ARTEMIS

By 2024, America will return to the Moon.  That is the promise of NASA’s new Artemis Program. As far as I’m concerned, NASA could not have picked a better name for their next Moon mission.

In ancient mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister. So as a follow-up to the Apollo Program, Artemis is the logical choice.

And where Apollo (named for a Greek god) put the first man on the Moon, Artemis (named for a Greek goddess) promises to put the first woman on the Moon.  And furthermore, Artemis has a stronger claim to the Moon anyway; she was the goddess of the Moon, after all! Apollo was the god of the Sun.

But will the Artemis mission actually happen? Honestly, I doubt it. Why?  Well, I’m really, really sorry for this, but we’re going to have to talk about American politics.

Artemis is expected to cost $20 billion, minimum.  That’s roughly equivalent to NASA’s entire annual budget.  While that $20 billion price tag is not an immediate deal breaker (like the 90-Day Report was), it’s still an awful lot of money.

It’s up to the current administration to persuade Congress to pay for Artemis.  Why is Artemis a good idea?  Why does it have to happen by 2024?  Based on articles like this one, it sounds like Congress is skeptical yet persuadable.

Unfortunately, the current administration seems to be sending a lot of mixed messages about Artemis.  Most notably, at an event celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the original Moon Landing, the current President very publically chastised his own NASA administrator for wanting to return to the Moon.  It’s enough to make one wonder if Artemis is a real priority for this administration.

So I’m pretty pessimistic about the Artemis Program. I don’t think it will happen, at least not as it’s currently envisioned, and certain not on the current timetable. Don’t agree?  Please tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.  I would love to be wrong about this.

But whenever the United States does get around to returning to the Moon, I hope NASA keeps the Artemis name.  That really is the perfect name for the next Moon mission.

Sciency Words: The 90-Day Report

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

THE 90-DAY REPORT

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the old Apollo Program, and also a lot of talk about the new Artemis Program, NASA’s next manned (and womanned) mission to the Moon.

But this is not a Sciency Words post about Artemis (I’m saving that for next week).  Instead, this is a post about the 90-Day Report and how it effectively killed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon in the 1990’s.  I think the story of the 90-Day Report provides some context for what may or may not happen with Artemis.

It was July 20, 1989—the 20th anniversary of the Moon Landing—when President George H.W. Bush announced America’s intention to return to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there.  This would be part of a strategy for America to push onward to Mars.  Following the President’s announcement, a special committee was formed to figure out how to make it all happen.  The committee’s findings were released in a document titled “Report on the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars,” a.k.a. the 90-Day Report.

According to the 90-Day Report, NASA would need to build a huge amount of infrastructure in space.  If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that’s basically what the 90-Day Report described: giant space stations, a multitude of space shuttles taxiing equipment and personnel to Earth orbit, and enormous interplanetary space cruisers to transport astronauts to the Moon or Mars.

And how much would this cost?  The 90-Day Report conspicuously didn’t say, but the most commonly cited estimate was $450 billion.  To put that in some context, NASA’s budget at the time was just over $11 billion (according to Wikipedia, numbers not adjusted for inflation).  As Robert Zubrin explains in his book The Case for Mars:

It is doubtful that any kind of program could have survived that price tag. Given its long timelines and limited set of advertised accomplishments on the road to colonizing space, which did little to arouse the enthusiasm of the space-interested public, the 90-Day Report proposal certainly could not.  Unless that $450 billion number could be radically reduced, the [Space Exploration Initiative] was as good as dead, a fact made clear in the ensuing months and years as Congress proceeded to zero out every SEI appropriation bill that crossed its desks.

A lot of people ask why we haven’t returned to the Moon since the days of the Apollo Program.  The 90-Day Report is a prime example of why.  “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say.  Where President Kennedy set a singular, clearly defined goal for the American space program, President Bush handed the space program over to a committee, which came up with a very complicated, very costly list of ideas, which Congress was unsurprisingly unwilling in paying for.

To be fair, at least one idea from the 90-Day Report did come to fruition.  We did get a giant space station.  But that only happened as a result of an international partnership, which is (in my opinion) a model for how all future space missions should be done.

So with the memory of the 90-Day report in mind, next week we’ll talk about the Artemis Program.