Editors' note: This is part of a series examining 50 years of space exploration.
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.
Today's outer space outerwear won't cut it. As well as NASA's current space suit 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 space suit 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 space suit should look like and how it should be built.
Newman spoke to CNET News.com recently about how to tailor a space suit 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 space suit?
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.
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 space suits 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 space suit 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.
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Day 3: Do we need NASA?
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Day 3: Designing a 21st-century space suit
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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Japan probe approaches moon
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Strange visitors to other planets
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Building a better space suit
At MIT and the University of North Dakota, researchers are trying out new designs to clothe astronauts heading to Mars. July 18, 2007
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The race to space: Recalling Sputnik
The Baltimore Sun
Science Times special coverage
New York Times
The next 50 years in space
Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)
Thank Sputnik for today's orbital freedom
Christian Science Monitor
Editors: Jennifer Guevin, Jim Kerstetter
Design: Andrew Ballagh
Production: Madeleine Kempton
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