NASA Tests Artemis II Crew Seat and Flight Suit
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and NASA worked together over the last two weeks of April 2023 along with other industry partners, such as Lockheed Martin, to test the most current iteration of an astronaut crew seat and flight suit that will be used in the Orion spacecraft during future missions to space.
“NASA came to us actually several years ago, to work with them on development of the Orion spacecraft capsule [to test the] suit for the astronauts and the seating system with the emphasis on the structural design of the seat and the restraint configuration,” said Chris Perry, Senior Biomedical Engineer, Biodynamics Section, 711th Human Performance Wing.
The Horizontal Impact Accelerator, or HIA, at AFRL’s Biomedical Impact of Flight Branch, tested multiple landing scenarios to gauge how the high-energy, low duration events inherent to the Orion spacecraft’s landings might affect the crew of the Artemis II mission. Using only parachutes to reduce speed, the Orion crew module will slow from nearly 25,000 miles per hour to around 20 during reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
“This horizontal accelerator is currently the only known facility of its kind that can conduct extensive biodynamic research on instrumented [anthropometric test device, or] ATDs and volunteer human subjects,” Perry said.
The HIA allows AFRL and NASA to assess various landing impact scenarios across all three — x, y and z — coordinate axes of the seat and enable researchers to examine how the seats and flight suits interact with one another and what affect those interactions may have on the crew. This allows crew safety personnel to address any issues that may present themselves in a more cost-effective manner than other testing options.
Another advantage is being able to run the system in a laboratory environment, where multiple tests in various orientations and configurations can be assessed. This gives the testing team an idea of potential areas of crew injury and allows changes to be made.
“This saves lives, equipment and money,” Perry said. “It's a conservative assessment option. That way if they see a problem with a design after a laboratory facility test, it's easy to go back and make changes and come back in and test.”
The objective of the testing, Perry said, is to gauge the structural integrity of the suit and the seat and to ensure its safety.
The two primary objectives are: No. 1, structural integrity of the suit and its critical components, and No. 2, to evaluate crew injury risk while suited and restrained in the Orion seat by using specialized anthropometric test devices, or ATDs, also known as a crash test dummy, said Perry.
The team tested the high-impact sled by adjusting the orientation and seat, and strapping in Campos, a manikin named after the legendary Arturo Campos, an electrical engineer who was instrumental to saving the Apollo 13 crew. Campos is a fire and rescue training manikin, and it is accurately weighed and has the appropriate density of a human. After traveling 1.4 million miles through space during the Artemis I mission, Campos was accelerated down the HIA track in the new Orion Crew Survival System flight suit to confirm it could withstand the most severe possible landings. In a second set of tests, Campos was replaced with small, medium and large instrumented ATDs for more detailed crew injury assessment.
“Then we compare the output or the data we collect from the ATD,” Perry added. “We compare that to injury criteria.”
The Air Force risk values must be 5% of risk of injury or lower, Perry said, and NASA is in the 1-5% range, or less. With this being the final design of the seat and the suit, the teams wanted to ensure the two integrated properly during simulated extreme landings.
“The worst-case scenarios for the spacecraft during landing had been determined by computational modeling,” Perry said. “NASA asked our facility to duplicate those real-world impact conditions on our impact sled in a more controlled environment.”
In addition to the occupant injury criteria, AFRL and NASA work with other AFRL technology directorates on sensors, materials and manufacturing and heat shield technology.
“So, there are a lot of the different technology directorates in AFRL that worked with NASA on multiple programs besides just what our biodynamics lab does — in terms of occupant protection and human injury, tolerance and how to provide the best seat in spacesuit and restraint configuration that we can protect them, as well as during all phases of their mission,” Perry said.
Additionally, the role of Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft, has been to design the vehicle itself, including the critical thermal protection system on the exterior and to the crew compartment on the interior.
“We designed and built the seats, the restraints and from the onset, we had to confirm that those two components: the seats [and] the restraints, had to work with the suit to make sure human beings fit into all those systems together,” said Mark Baldwin, biomechanical engineer and occupant protection specialist at Lockheed Martin Space. “And then on top of that, we also designed a one-of-a-kind, unique impact attenuation system because we're going to land under variable conditions in the water.”
The Artemis II test flight, scheduled to launch no earlier than November 2024, will be NASA’s first crewed flight to the Moon since the end of the Apollo program in 1975. During the roughly 10-day mission, the four astronauts will confirm that Orion’s life support systems and other components are operating as intended.
Orion will then perform multiple maneuvers to raise its orbit and perform a lunar flyby and enter a lunar free return trajectory to Earth — Earth’s gravity will pull Orion back. Artemis II is meant to pave the way to land humans on the Moon once again on Artemis III, scheduled to launch in December 2025.