Dava Newman, an aerospace engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is not happy with the current state of spacesuits. She thinks they are big, bulky, and at the end of their lifecycle. The engineer is in the process of designing a spacesuit that not only fulfills its purpose of protecting the astronauts, but makes them look good in space.
A beautiful spacesuit
It is pressure inside a spacesuit that allows the astronaut’s blood to remain liquid and flow properly throughout the body. Without sufficient pressure, the blood could turn into gas and kill the person in a short period of time.
The current generation of spacesuits creates pressure by filling with oxygen, thereby enveloping the astronaut in a gas bubble. However, this ends up making the spacesuit big and bulky, while the astronaut can barely move. Dava wants to create aesthetically pleasing spacesuits that generate pressure mechanically and cling to the skin.
“You want to wear beautiful things. You want to have a great suit and [one that] looks good… It doesn’t cost any extra money to do it right and do it very aesthetically, and I’m always learning as well from multidisciplinary teams, because bringing people together, they might have a different solution. I come at it usually from an analytical or technical [perspective], and you bring artists together, you bring designers, and they’re going to really push us on form, functionality, things like this,” she said to Space.
For now, Dava is testing out various materials for the suit, including optical fibers. She hopes to create a prototype by 2019/2020 that is capable of producing at least a third of the atmospheric pressure.
NASA spacesuit problem
NASA is also grappling with its own spacesuit issue as the agency is literally stuck with using suits that were designed decades ago. Using these suits on future missions that involve exploration of harsh environments like on the Moon and Mars is a dangerous prospect.
For instance, moon dust is said to be sharp and lethal for human beings. Extended explorations of the Moon’s surface can end up causing the current spacesuits to be torn apart by the sharp edges of the dust. If an astronaut brings the suit inside the spacecraft, the dust will also be brought along with it, which may be inhaled by the people inside the craft. As a result, the dust will settle inside their lungs and other internal organs, causing severe health issues and even death. Exploring the Moon and Martian surfaces in today’s bulky suits will also be a tiresome activity for the astronauts.
“NASA plans to launch Exploration Mission 1, the first test of Orion and its heavy rocket, as early as 2020. The Lunar Gateway station could be ready for use five or six years later. Despite these looming deadlines, NASA “remains years away from having a flight-ready space suit… suitable for use on future exploration missions,” the agency’s inspector general warned in a 2017 audit, according to The Daily Beast.
If Dava is able to complete her skin-clinging spacesuit in the next couple of years, NASA might be able to incorporate some elements of the technology into their suits. However, since Dava is currently employed at MIT and NASA hasn’t yet requested input from independent experts, it remains to be seen whether her designs will eventually be used by the space agency.