Q&A: Designing a 21st-century spacesuit

MIT professor Dava Newman tells how the form-fitting BioSuit will help give NASA a ready-to-wear outfit for the moon and Mars.

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9 min read

If you want to be among the next group of astronauts to traipse about the moon -- or among those who later land on Mars -- you'll need to dress the part.

That means having a space suit that doesn't just bundle you up against the extraterrestrial elements, but one that also lets you move freely and perhaps even gracefully as you perform your everyday exploratory tasks.

BioSuit space suit

MIT's Dava Newman models the BioSuit.

Donna Coveney/MIT

Today's outer space outerwear won't cut it. As well as NASA's current spacesuit has performed, the so-called extravehicular mobility unit really wasn't designed for the movement and manual labor that shuttle and space station crews have undertaken. And it was built for microgravity environments, for astronauts floating around those orbiting vessels, not for the men and women who'll eventually be digging up moon rocks and sifting Martian soil for signs of water.

Enter the spacesuit designers. One of them is Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her group at MIT has been working on a research project called the BioSuit, a distinctively form-fitting outfit that is meant to give its wearer much better mobility than current gear through its use of mechanical counterpressure -- basically, squeezing down on the torso and limbs. By contrast, the EMU worn outside the space station is puffed up by gas pressurization.

The BioSuit won't be the actual suit worn back to the moon on NASA's Constellation missions, which are scheduled to begin with test flights in 2009, followed by flights to the International Space Station through the next decade and a return to the lunar surface around 2020. But it will likely give the space agency some ideas about what that spacesuit should look like and how it should be built.

Newman spoke to CNET News.com recently about how to tailor a spacesuit for locomotion and what it takes to get from prototype to flight suit.

Q: Can you describe the suit and what your group was aiming for with it?
Newman: We definitely were looking for some breakthrough design concepts and the technologies that might help us think about revolutionary suit concepts for 10 to 20 years out, a long-term horizon. You have to give [astronauts] a pressure suit. The conventional way is gas-pressurized suits that are fantastic -- I'm in admiration of the current system -- but now that we're going to go to the moon and Mars, how can we get mobility and flexibility? They're really paramount. They haven't been the showstoppers up in microgravity -- different environment, different tasks to do -- but now we need locomotion capability for the moon.

One of the key design features with the BioSuit is the way it's form-fitting. How does that work?
Newman: We get great mobility and flexibility. You can bend down, you can get down on your knee and pick up a rock, so we have significantly increased amounts of mobility of the limb joints.

Is that the biggest challenge in trying to redesign a spacesuit?
Newman: It depends which approach you take. We've taken a mechanical counterpressure approach, which means basically you apply the pressure directly to the skin. So constant pressure production is probably one of the biggest technological challenges, for sure.

We'll be able to continue using both NASA's suit and the Russian suit to get the work done on space station to do extravehicular activity, but it's definitely not a locomotion suit. You can't walk or lope or bound in it.

As form-fitting as the BioSuit is, you still have that big, bulky helmet. Is there any way to get headgear that's not quite as disproportionate?
Newman: We think it'll be more like a conventional helmet. Not that it's bulky. Of course you'd like lightweight systems but you want to give them as much vision as possible. If you did true mechanical counterpressure for the whole suit, you'd shrink-wrap the head as well, but there's no advantage to doing that, and there are a lot of disadvantages. It's very hard to get something that tight, say, for the eye sockets. There's really no reason to do mechanical counterpressure on the head, and there are good reasons to use a conventional gas-pressurized helmet design. It's comfortable.

Where our contributions come in into the helmet is more the information technology. Right now there's really no information technology displayed within the suit. So that's been a research theme for us, for sure -- what information should you display to the astronaut in the suit, and how would we do that? How's my heart rate, how much oxygen do I have left? You maybe call up the topographical map of the moon, and what you need to get done, what information you need to do your exploration.

So the conventional helmet -- sure, in terms of the bubble design, give them a large periphery, but we think then about layering the different kind of information content onto a helmet.

The spacesuits of today, they've been around for a while. Are they just reaching the end of the line for what they can provide to astronauts, in terms of the kinds of missions that are coming up?

Newman: Yeah, basically the current spacesuit was fielded for the space shuttle. It's a great outfit, a great system, for the shuttle, and then it's performed remarkably well for the space station. The design requirements initially were not for a space station, multimonth suit in microgravity. It's really adapted and performed for changing missions, which went from shuttle to station. We'll be able to continue using both NASA's suit and the Russian suit to get the work done on the space station to do extravehicular activity, but it's definitely not a locomotion suit. You can't walk or lope or bound in it. A few steps is about the capability right now.

You've got a long window of trying to develop this -- you're talking about 20 years. This is not something for two years from now, or even five or 10?
Newman: The window to influence NASA and be part of that is really in the next five or 10 years. Not more than five or so years for more research and development and ideas, because there is a call right now for NASA for a new spacesuit system for Constellation, for the new program. But to have a flight system is quite an ordeal, to flight-qualify everything -- the R&D up front and then testing and getting prototypes and moving from prototypes into possible flight systems.

And that probably won't happen with the BioSuit, unfortunately. We would love it to happen, but we don't have the commitment or the funding stream from NASA to take this all the way to a flight system, not by a long stretch. So it's more [that] we're pushing state-of-the-art technology; we're pushing some innovative design concepts. How that may really influence the next system is [that perhaps we'd] be part of the team for the next suit, and how can we use some of our lessons learned and have some of our really good ideas hopefully influence the next flight system, the suit that we really wear on the moon and Mars.

That's for NASA. Now if you're talking about commercial space opportunities and things like that, that breaks it wide open -- different capabilities needed, and that's a different constituency as well. The commercial space industry, if it gets going, if there's really numbers of people going -- dozens, hundreds, who knows, of people going into space in the next decade. If people are going to go for a joy ride the first time they go into space, what they're going to want to do [after that] is get into a spacesuit and go outside the craft or walk around on Mars, the moon.

Do you need different suits for different planetary environments? Would you need something different for Mars than for the moon?
Newman: In terms of the fundamental design, the locomotion and mobility, you want it for both. The differences come in the life support system, because you're in a vacuum on the moon, and for Mars there's a slight atmosphere. The gas constituencies are very different, and that affects the life support system. The radiation environment, even though it's different on both, you have to design for that. But the commonality is that you need the locomotion suit rather than just the microgravity suits that we've been concentrating on through all of human space flight -- excluding Apollo; we did have a locomotion suit during Apollo [with] limited locomotion and mobility.

They were able to play golf and drive moon buggies.
Newman: They did as well as they could.

Is there any kind of new material going into these suits? The BioSuit, at least as it currently stands, uses Spandex and nylon.
Newman: That's our current mockup. Absolutely, we spend a lot of time and collaborate with a lot of smart people in advanced materials, and to realize these capabilities we'd need to incorporate some active materials. The nylon synthetics and polymers -- they're materials that exist now, which is good. The contributions we make are the design, how you put those materials, those elastic and polymer materials, together. It's the design and the pattern, that's something that's novel. You can't get that done conventionally right now. There's not a loom you could go to in the world that could do a 3D printout in the design that I need.

Now the active materials -- essentially, think of that as a smart zipper, if you will, that can really kind of cinch up and hold the pressure. That's something that we kind of demonstrate but we don't have full prototypes that incorporate the active materials. We know exactly what we want, we know their characteristics, but the next step is specifying the material and actually having it made. A shape-memory polymer is an example, and electro-active material is an example. But having it made, in terms of the human scale -- see, these are being done in labs, usually in very small samples, even at the nano level. We need to scale this up to the suit level, and then it's very useful for the BioSuit.

There's at least one other spacesuit designer out there, Pablo de Leon at the University of North Dakota. How does what you're doing differ from what he's doing?
Newman: He's definitely trying to get more locomotion capability [and a lighter suit], which is great, but he's going with a conventional gas-pressurized design that has good mobility.

You don't just work on spacesuits, you study extravehicular activity generally. What are some of the other challenges in EVA besides having a suit that works for an environment that the astronaut is going into?
Newman: Let's say you're on the moon, what about the rovers and the robots you're interacting with? We really do look at the whole system for exploration. It's not just a person out there by themselves, or even two people. So what tasks should the robots do, what tasks should the human do, and how do we do this coordinated human-robotic activity for exploration?

And there's the question, too, of whether to go to Mars or the moon, and whether to have manned or unmanned space flight as a priority.
Newman: I think the arguments are passe -- we're past that. To go to the moon or Mars is not a debate. The next step will be the moon, the next stepping stone. Humans versus robots doesn't make any sense. It's really, what can humans and machines do together and how well can we do it. It's just a matter of task allocation.

Do you have ambitions to go into space yourself?
Newman: Oh! I've never applied to the astronaut corps, but I have lots of friends and now students who are becoming astronauts. I love flying experiments up and working with the astronauts and training them on the experiments and then seeing the results that come back. I mean, I'd love to fly once, sure, given the opportunity, but I kind of like my day job up here.