Slimming Down Future Spacesuits
Dava Newman dons the Biosuit spacesuit design on Henry Moore's sculpture "Reclining Figure" on the MIT campus.
Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT.

Skintight spacesuits may give future astronauts a more flexible - not to mention stylish - way to explore the moon and Mars.


Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are edging closer to a spaceworthy astronaut garment that replaces the bulky traits of current, gas-pressurized versions with flexibility and mobility. Dubbed BioSuit, the spacesuit design relies on mechanical counter pressure rather than the stiff pressurized vessels employed by astronauts in space today.


"You can't do much bending of the arms or legs in that type of suit," said Dava Newman, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronauts leading the research, of current spacesuits used in Earth orbit.  


Newman and colleague Jeffrey Hoffman, a former NASA astronaut and spacewalker, have been working with students and the design firm Trotti and Associates for seven years to build a viable BioSuit.


A current prototype of the suit consistently exerts pressures of about 20 kilopascals on its wearer but newer models have reached pressures of up to 25 to 30 kilopascals, which is about one-third that of the Earth?s atmosphere and the target for spaceworthy BioSuit, researchers said. A fully functional suit could be made ready for spaceflight in about 10 years, they added.


At the heart of the BioSuit is mechanical counter pressure, which uses tightly wrapped layers of material that are both flexible and protective to the astronaut inside. The suit?s layers are wrapped in a meticulous fashion -- based on three-dimensional maps of the human body in motion -- to provide structural support while maintaining mobility, researchers said.


NASA?s current Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, as well as their Russian Orlan counterparts, surround their astronaut wearers in a stiff, pressurized vessel containing breathable air. Added outer layers of material, as well as a backpack-mounted life support system, can further restrict the spacesuit?s mobility and require astronauts to spend the bulk of their energy fighting their own garments while toiling in space.


Both the EMU and Orlan spacesuits are designed for work in Earth orbit, not for use on planetary surfaces like those of the Moon or Mars, where walking -- not floating -- will be key.


?We really must design for greater mobility and enhanced human and robotic capability," Newman said.


Newman hopes the BioSuits could be tailored to offer varying levels of resistance to their wearers for use as exercise garments for astronauts on long flights to Mars, as well as athletes and those requiring aid to walk on Earth.


The promise of mechanical counter pressure space garments has not missed NASA's eye.


In early May, the U.S. space agency offered up a $50,000 cash prize for anyone capable of demonstrating a homebuilt version of a spacesuit glove using the technology during its Astronaut Glove Challenge. While the $50,000 prize went unclaimed for lack of entrants and was rolled over to 2008, a $200,000 purse for a more conventional space glove went to Maine engineer Peter Homer.