Helping Design the Next Generation of Spacesuits

Engineering student team at CMU is working with NASA and a former astronaut to develop AR solutions for Artemis missions.

A rendering of the AR interface in use on the moon. (Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.)

A rendering of the AR interface in use on the moon. (Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.)

Engineering students at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are developing a technology that could be out of this world—literally. Their Moon Buddy project has the potential to become part of NASA’s future spacesuits.

The Moon Buddy is part of the 2022 NASA Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students (SUITS) Challenge. SUITS has tasked 10 teams of students to design and create an augmented reality (AR) environment to boost information flow for astronauts on the organization’s Artemis missions to the moon.

The technology would be used on moonwalks to help astronauts navigate the difficult terrain by plotting routes and avoiding obstacles, support scientific experiments and provide critical support in case of emergencies.

Artemis missions are anticipated to last much longer and require more complex activity from the astronauts than the moonwalks conducted by Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts—particularly when conducting scientific experiments. Artemis’ astronauts will need an interface that can handle and interpret significant amounts of data.

“NASA doesn’t yet have a system that puts all this information in one place where it is easily accessible by astronauts,” said team lead Angie Bonilla, a junior in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) and CMU’s computer science and art program. “Augmented reality of this type hasn’t existed in space travel before. We’re developing a novel interface that could actually be used in space exploration.”

The CMU team is made up of students specializing in augmented and virtual reality, human-computer interaction, information systems, cognitive science, computer science and art. They have been working directly with NASA staff throughout the project; in fact, their mentor tests spacesuit prototypes for the Artemis project.

“We’re working with primary researchers, with people who have actually tried this technology,” said Ron Chew, an HCII senior studying information systems.

The students have also worked with former NASA astronaut Jay Apt, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon. Apt gave the students invaluable real-world insight from his experience conducting two spacewalks. He identified a unique problem for the students to solve: how to interact with the AR interface while wearing bulky gloves and a pressurized helmet. It is difficult for an astronaut to move their arms in a spacesuit, so pressing buttons, using a touchscreen or making hand gestures would be a significant challenge.

“In space, you have these huge gloves. Trying to close your fist could feel like trying to squeeze a plastic gallon of milk,” Bonilla said. “That’s when we realized it might be easier to shift toward a voice-based interface.”

As a result, the Moon Buddy features voice control as part of its AR interface. An astronaut could speak a command or request and the information would be layered on a heads-up display. This way the astronaut could determine their location and where crew members are; it could also help in hazard detection to help the user adjust to light and darkness on the moon. An astronaut could also ask Moon Buddy to analyze, scan and upload a sample in their hand and display the visual analysis data—and even decide if the sample is worth collecting. During an emergency, Moon Buddy could track crew member vitals and share the information with other astronauts.

Team Moon Buddy students explain their space suit concept.

The Moon Buddy team’s next step: traveling to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in May to put their software design to the test with NASA technologies.

Whether or not NASA uses Moon Buddy in its next generation spacesuits, the students have gained invaluable experience working on the project. For example, Matthew Komar, who studies AR and virtual reality development, said he has been able to apply his work on Moon Buddy to another solution. The Moon Buddy team has not only expanded their skillsets, they have also had the chance to learn from industry leaders at NASA about building a career in science and engineering.