When the first all women spacewalk was cancelled in 2019 due to the spacesuits not fitting them correctly, a problem was highlighted: for the past 40 years, NASA barely renewed its collection of spacesuits. In fact, the current EMUs (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) date back to 1978. They were designed for short missions outside the shuttle, during which astronauts assembled the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Anna fisher in a spacesuit at Marshall Space Flight Center
These spacesuits ended up lasting for much longer than the 15 years originally planned. However, the maintenance cost was such that only 12 of them are still in use which includes none of the original small sizes. As pointed out by Kathryn Sullivan - the first American woman to walk in space - this means that women (or any smaller size astronauts) are often forced to wear ill-fitting suits, which affect their ability to bend, move and work properly. NASA now put a lot of efforts to reach gender equality. Yet, this issue reminds us that space programs and their equipment were not originally designed for women and that this original flaw still has consequences today.
From left to right are Shannon W. Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher, and Sally K. Ride.
But the gender matter is not the only concerning aspect of the old EMUs. To Dava Newman, they are amazing pieces of technology, “miniature spacecraft that provide the pressure, oxygen, and thermal control that humans need to survive in the vacuum of space.” Yet, they weigh 140kg and the air filling the suit in order to ensure a pressurized habitat makes them incredibly stiff. These suits are tiring for astronauts using them and their rigidity hinders their freedom of movement.
Dava Newman is an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, director of the MIT Media Lab, and former NASA deputy administrator of the Obama’s administration. But she is also leading the research team that is developing the BioSuit, a new spacesuit that would enable proper explorations of Mars and the moon.
Dava Newman in a prototype of the BioSuit
“Future space exploration will be expensive. If we send humans to Mars, we will want to maximize the work effort and science return. One contributor to that efficiency will need to be a new kind of spacesuit that allows our explorer-astronauts to move freely and quickly on the Martian surface. That could be the BioSuit."
Instead of a “balloon-like” suit, filled with air that provides pressure, the BioSuit would be form fitting and would apply pressure directly to the skin. Her team is using elastic fabric, and a structure that should ultimately provide ⅓ of the sea level atmospheric pressure - that is to say the pressure at the top of Mount Everest.
Dava Newman presenting the current stage of the BioSuit at a TED talk in 2013
This new shape would ensure much more mobility and dexterity. It could also be safer : an abrasion of a micrometeor could make a hole in the current types of suits, provoking a threatening decompression. In the BioSuit, a high tech ACE bandage could probably close up a small breach.
Researchers are pursuing the idea of Physiologist Dr. Paul Webb, who prototyped a similar kind of suit in the early 70’s. Spandex and its derivatives polymers were not available at the time, which prevented him from reaching the right amount of pressure. These materials, combined with a different kind of patterning that include three-dimensional lines on the body, brought the current team close to their goal. They even successfully tried prototype legs in a vacuum chamber. Further on, some developments of the suit could be applied in the medical field, helping to enhance movements of those suffering from locomotion disabilities.
MIT student Kristen Bethke working on the BioSuit knee joint in 2005
According to Dava Newman, their holistic, multidisciplinary approach largely contributes to their progress. The team includes professional engineers, Rhode Island School of Design and MIT students, along with architecture and industrial designers from Trotti and Associates. They even work with Dainese, an Italian expert of motorcycle racing suits, that produces leather and carbon fiber outfits protecting racers going up to 200 mph. (9) If the next generation of spacesuits comes to life, it will be as much thanks to scientists and engineers as to designers and textile specialists. And it will be thanks to the first female engineers serving as NASA Deputy Administrator, Dava Newman.
Photo credits :
Nasa Astronaut Anna fisher in a spacesuit at Marshall Space Flight Center in 1980, "Women in Space : Dr Anna Fisher, One of the Original Six"Spaceflight Insider, J.D. Taylor, 04/30/2015
Photo credit : NASA
The first NASA class of women in 1978, "The Class of 1978 and the FLATs", NASA, 07/08/201, Photo credit : NASA
Dava Newman in a prototype of the BioSuit, "Building the Future Spacesuit" by Dava Newman, Ask Magazine, Photo Credit: Professor Dava Newman, MIT: Inventor, Science and Engineering; Guillermo Trotti, A.I.A., Trotti and Associates, Inc. (Cambridge, MA): Design; Dainese (Vincenca, Italy): Fabrication; Douglas Sonders: Photography
"BioSuit: The Future of Space Gear Is Being Built Out of MIT", Boston Magazine, Steve Annear, 12/10/2013, Photo credit : Photo via TED Women/Dava Newman
MIT student Kristen Bethke working on the BioSuit knee joint in 2005, "This New Form-Fitting Spacesuit Could Revolutionize How Astronauts Move In Space", Business Insider, Harrison Jacobs, 13/13/2013
Photo credit : 2005 Volker Steger / Science Photo Library
"Building the Future Spacesuit" by Dava Newman, Ask Magazine / NASA
"NASA needs new spacesuits; here's what's being done about it", Click Orlando, Emilee Speck, 07/25/2019
"First all-woman space walk puts spotlight on spacesuit design", National Geographic, Maya Wei-Haas, 10/18/2019
Dava Newman, Spacesuit of the future, filmed interview by Lex Fridman