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You've got a long window of trying to develop this--you're talking about 20 years. This is not something for 2 years from now, or even 5 or 10?
Newman: The window to influence NASA and be part of that is really in the next 5 or 10 years. Not more than 5 or so years for more research and development and ideas, because there is a call right now for NASA for a new space suit 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 space suit 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 moonbuggies.
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 space suit 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 space suits, 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.
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The race to space: Recalling Sputnik
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Science Times special coverage
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The next 50 years in space
Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)
Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom
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Editors: Jennifer Guevin, Jim Kerstetter
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Madeleine Kempton
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