Nobody would have known if I had touched Neil Armstrong’s moon-walking suit back in 2018. I wasn’t supposed to touch it—indeed, I was forbidden to touch it—but boy, I could have.
I was in the restoration lab at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy extension outside of Washington, D.C., and the suit was being mounted on a new mannequin-like armature that would help support and preserve it for display in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing the following year. At one moment, I was left alone—just the suit and me in the middle of the room—and I knelt down to examine the boots that had taken those celebrated small steps half a century earlier. The temptation to reach out and graze one of them with a finger was overwhelming, but I couldn’t do it. This suit felt almost like an artifact of religion; touching it felt as though I was desecrating.
Twelve such suits that were used by moonwalkers are at large around the world, and soon there will be more—not in museums, but in actual service during spacewalks outside of the International Space Station (ISS) as well as on the moon, and eventually Mars. This week, as NASA and others report, the space agency awarded contracts worth a maximum combined $3.5 billion to Houston-based Axiom Aerospace and North Carolina-based Collins Aerospace to compete to develop the next generation of so called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs)—NASA-speak for spacesuits. One or both companies could produce suits that meet NASA’s approval and go into service. The contracts are either just in the right time or years too late for both companies.
The suits currently used for spacewalks aboard the ISS are as old as the station itself—which is to say more than two decades—and they’re showing signs of dangerous wear. For example, in March there was a water leakage in one spacesuit that threatened to drown astronaut Matthias Maurer. This happened in the same way as what almost happened in 2013 to Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, when his helmet burst with water.
The new suits will weigh 158 kg (350 lbs) on Earth—but nothing at all in the zero-G environment outside the space station, and 26 kg (just over 57 lbs.) On the Moon’s surface. Two versions are likely to be available. They will likely come in two versions. The lunar version will have a flexible design to allow for walking and the occasional falling. This type will be used for spacewalks beyond the ISS and won’t require as much flexibility.
“The requirements set for a low-Earth-orbit suit on space station and a suit on the lunar surface [are] not significantly different, particularly for the life support system,” Lara Kearney, manager of the spacesuit program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center told Spaceflight now. “The differences really come in the pressure garment [the innermost layer of the suit]—the difference in being in zero gravity on space station versus having to walk on the moon, where you need all of the mobility.”
To resist the damage caused by the dust-like, powdery lunar surface, any suit worn on the moon must be stronger than the spacewalking suits. That’s especially so since 21st century explorers will be spending far more time on the moon than the maximum three days the Apollo crews spent.
NASA has provided seed money to fund the suit, however, unlike many others in the rapidly privatizing space sector, NASA won’t be able to own them. Collins and Axiom will design the suits, then build them and lease them to space agencies and all other companies interested in exploring spacewalking. It will almost be like the next big step on the moon’s surface is taken in a rented suit. NASA has not yet revealed when the moment will occur, but it is possible that it could be as soon as 2025.
The original version of this story appeared in TIME Space. This weekly newsletter covers all things space. Sign up now
Read More From Time