Research Assessment 6

This article was about the development of space suits. It talked about the materials used based on what function the suits were supposed to serve. It also addresses failed suit designs due to security and safety concerns.

Space suits need to be pressurized and have a full functioning life support system to protect astronauts from the external environment. The big struggle with space suits is that they need to provide so many functions, but still be lightweight and maneuverable. Take the example of Alexey Leonov’s suit. It had enough oxygen to last an hour, but Leonov had to return after 12 minutes because the lack of maneuverability and air ventilation, resulting in Leonov becoming overheated and lethargic.

As the space program transitions to Mars exploration, this issue becomes even more complex. Mars is significantly larger than the moon, meaning there is more gravity. This complicates the situation by making it even harder to move, forcing engineers to come up with better ways to continue to provide all the functions required in a suit that needs to be lighter than ever before.

MIT is researching into a new kind of suit that increases mobility - the Bio Suit. The joint research team between MIT and NASA has found a successful way to create a leotard-like suit that could be the future of space suits. The issue is getting into such a form fitting suit, but the possible use of electric currents can solve that issue. The suit starts as a loose garment that can be easily put on. Then, nickel titanium coils are used to form a cuff that uses a heating wire. When heated through a current, the coil tightens up and provides the necessary counter pressure for the Bio Suit to perfectly fit the wearer. The suit applies pressure evenly, maintaining equal pressurized contact with the entire body. Additionally, a hole or tear in a traditional space suit can cause deadly decompression, but with a space activity suit such as this one, any adhesives could easily fix the hole. Since the suit only adheres to the body, a traditional helmet will still be necessary.

However, a skin tight suit limits what tools can be carried and makes mounting life support systems harder. Soft suits - traditional space suits - offer more protection and its knitted layers make maneuverability easier than hard suits, although not anywhere near the mobility of activity suits. The swirling wind found on Mars can easily find its way into crevices of the space suit and make maintenance a problem. Any suit that is going to be used in the Mars mission will need to be able to be repaired in space. The easiest way to do this is to have numerous parts that can be replaced on their own and simply reattached to the whole suit. Soft suits do this significantly better than the activity suit, simply because it is made of multiple pieces. Having detachable parts also makes suits easier to clean, allowing them to have more durability and a longer life span.

A hybrid suit between these two will most likely be the best bet for Mars astronauts. Using the activity suit materials for joints and limbs, while retaining the soft suit for the torso and maintaining the pressurized helmet allows the astronaut more mobility, but also more substance and structure. It would also be lighter than the space suits used on the Moon, making it more suitable for Mars.

I plan on researching NASA’s current Mars suit to see how they are approaching this problem and reach out to Dava Newman or any of her associates at MIT. I also need to talk to a materials scientist. I need to continue reaching out to physical therapists to study their suits and see the limitations of a “gravity” inducing suit. Another interesting direction I could take this issue is by looking into internal biological issues with zero gravity and look into nutritional supplements to complement space suits. Supplements could decrease the amount of task necessary for space suits and could slow down bone and muscle decay without constricting mobility.

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