The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is operated by Raytheon Technologies business, Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

The next giant leap

The technologies that will return us to deep space

July 20, 1969.

The lunar module skims over the moon, looking for a clear spot to land. With seconds of fuel left, it touches down on the surface  and sinks into billions of years of lunar dust as if it were quicksand.

Luckily, the Apollo 11 mission didn’t unfold that way. But in the early years of the space program, at least one NASA scientist worried that the lunar landscape wouldn’t support the weight of the heavy lander.

Today, a lot more is known about the hazards astronauts might face on the moon, including moon dust that is composed of tiny glass-like shards and extreme temperature fluctuations.

It will take new technologies to face those hazards. Some are being developed by the businesses of Raytheon Technologies.

That includes futuristic spacesuits. With experience that stretches from Apollo through the Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions, Collins Aerospace Systems, a business of Raytheon Technologies, funded a prototype Next-Generation Spacesuit system in collaboration with ILC Dover. Forward-looking and incorporating a number of new suit technologies, it’s designed with both commercial customers and NASA in mind.

“To build a spacesuit, you’re building a human-shaped spacecraft,” Dan Burbank, a Collins Aerospace senior technology fellow and retired NASA astronaut, told The Verge.

It’s a long way from the bulky suit Neil Armstrong wore. The new suit will be easily fitted to different body sizes, will be upgradeable for different missions, and will be light and efficient, thanks to new motors and electronics.

New carbon dioxide removal technology will perpetually regenerate for longer missions and less maintenance. Astronauts will move more freely, with improved mobility joints and an ambulatory lower torso. Introduction of display technology could provide them a digitally connected experience, including advanced displays, voice-activated controls, real-time access to data and HD video.

That’s just one of the technology leaps made by Collins Aerospace for the coming space exploration. NASA's current plan calls for Artemis 1, an uncrewed mission to orbit the moon; followed by Artemis 2, which will orbit Earth's satellite with a crew; and Artemis 3, which will put astronauts on lunar soil in 2024. That crew will include the first woman on a lunar mission.

Collins Aerospace will provide critical subsystems for the Orion spacecraft fleet for Artemis 3 through 8, including environmental control and life support, active thermal control and waste management.

Collins Aerospace will provide critical subsystems for the Orion spacecraft fleet for Artemis 3 through 8, including environmental control and life support, active thermal control and waste management.

Practice, practice, practice

Another Raytheon Technologies business, Raytheon Intelligence & Space, operates the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The 202-foot-long, 102-foot-wide, 40-foot-six-inch-deep diving tank provides an earthly base for training space travelers.

The pool's "neutral buoyancy" resembles the zero-gravity, or weightlessness, of space. While astronauts are neutrally buoyant in the pool, they still feel their weight while in their suits. Water drag also hinders motion. Yet neutral buoyancy is currently the best method available by which astronauts train for spacewalks.

On the moon, however, astronauts will not be weightless; lunar gravity is one-sixth that of Earth's. And the team has devised a weight system to help simulate the moon's gravity and is testing different materials on the bottom of the pool to mimic its soil and surface.

"It's pretty early in the process, because we don't know exactly what they'll be bringing to the moon as far as equipment, shelters, vehicles and space suits," said Raytheon Technologies’ Randal Lindner, NBL operations contract program manager. "But we want NASA to know that the NBL is looking forward and evolving as the space missions evolve, and we're preparing for the moon and Mars."

A matter of recovery

For the past six years, the NBL team has been working on prototype landing and recovery ground support equipment, testing procedures and training to safely recover the astronauts and their Orion spacecraft at sea.

“There’s a lot of attention paid to the hazards and dangers of different phases of the Orion mission,” said Lindner. “But the landing and recovery also has perils, and it is human nature to think that they’re back on Earth, so they’re safe and sound. But you’ve got wave action, an open hatch and strapped-in astronauts whose muscles have atrophied after 10 days in space.”

The Neutral Buoyancy Lab pool with mock-ups of the International Space Station underwater.

The 6.2 million gallon tank includes mock-ups of International Space Station modules and other training materials. 

The company's work with NASA has led to several prototype recovery devices. During open-water extraction, divers will attach an inflatable stabilization collar around Orion at the water line, which will serve as a work area for divers. The divers will also attach an inflatable life raft, officially called the front porch.

Divers will attach another collar, called a pony collar, around Orion a couple of feet above the water line. Tending lines from the collar will serve as the primary method for towing the Orion Crew Module into the well deck of the recovery ship.

“One of the contingencies that we really need to be prepared for is if the capsule lands upside down,” said Lisa Lundquist, project manager for Orion's landing and recovery. “Ideally, it will land upright with the heat shield in the water. But there's almost a 50-50 chance it won't.”

The Crew Module Uprighting System will deploy five orange airbags upon splashdown. If Orion flips, CMUS will flip it right side up.

“After a few minutes upside down, the astronauts will experience distress, which makes CMUS an important safety feature,” Lundquist said.

A crew performing tests on the Orion capsule.

Raytheon Technologies contractors at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab work from the "Front Porch" life raft to check the fit of the Orion crew capsule's inflatable stabilization collar.