For 40 years astronauts have been lumbering around space in the same heavy, energy-sapping suits — and that is what Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wants to change. Newman and her team of researchers have just unveiled a promising new prototype called the BioSuit: a sleek, white, clingy outfit, whose revolutionary design has the potential to make astronauts feel as agile and au courant as Spider-Man.
The new anti-spacesuit spacesuit is made of an elastic, skintight material, lightweight enough to allow astronauts to walk, run or even scale mountains on a moon or planet's surface — acts that are physically impossible using NASA's current Tin Man-like designs. The form-fitting style of the new suit doesn't just make for a beguiling photo op; it also keeps astronauts alive by creating what scientists call mechanical counter pressure, which balances out the vacuum pull of space. The spacesuits worn today use gas pressurization — they create a small Earth-like atmosphere inside the suit, which exerts the appropriate force on the astronaut's body. The system works, but many scientists consider it to be out of date because it requires bulky equipment and a life support system that weighs almost 300 lbs. "These suits are fine for space shuttles or stations," Newman says. "But not for exploration." In fact, estimates show that astronauts typically end up expending about 70% to 80% of their energy just moving around in their suit.
The new suit creates the same kind of pressurized environment, simply by wrapping layers of specially patterned nylon and Spandex fabric tightly around the body, a method that Newman's been working on for seven years. When the material is properly wrapped, according to maps of the wearer's body in motion, it creates a mobile, skeleton-like shell that protects and supports the astronaut. When the new suits roll out, each one will be tailored to the individual astronaut and slipped on like a snug wetsuit — a "second skin," says Newman. One kink she's still trying to work out: figuring out a way for the suits to sustain enough counter pressure. To work, the BioSuit needs to exert close to one-third of the pressure exerted by the Earth's atmosphere, or 30 kilopascals (kPA). So far, the suits have consistently given off only 20 kPA. The researchers aren't sure what the problem is yet, but they suspect it has something to do with the suit's pattern.
Aside from its more appealing profile and wearability, Newman says, the BioSuit will likely be safer for astronauts than the old-style suits. Currently, when an astronaut's suit is punctured, he or she has to go back to the base to undress and decompress. With the new suits, astronauts could simply slap a patch over the tear. The BioSuit also provides a level of resistance that helps the body maintain muscle mass, since astronauts lose about 40% of their brawn during space travel. So, if the suit doesn't end up making it to Mars, researchers say it could possibly be used by athletes in training.
Newman estimates that the new suit, funded in part by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, will be ready in about 10 years — probably about the same time NASA will start sending people to Mars and other moons. "If astronauts ever want to take more than a few steps and explore, they will need new suits," says Newman.