The smallest spacecraft ever designed is not a craft at all. It's the space suit a self-contained environmental enclosure that, like the cockpit of the space shuttle or lunar module, relies on pressurized atmosphere to give astronauts air to breathe and to protect them from the killing vacuum of space. But pressure suits are clumsy things, as revealed by any clip of the inflatable moonmen of the Apollo program moving stiffly over the lunar surface. Now all that could change, thanks to Dava Newman, 43, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.
In mid-July, Newman unveiled a prototype space suit, called the BioSuit, a sleek, white, clingy outfit whose design has the potential to make astronauts feel as agile and au courant as Spider-Man. The new anti–space suit is made of a skintight, elastic nylon-and-spandex combination, light enough to allow astronauts to walk, run or even scale mountains—just the thing as NASA presses ahead with its plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and send them on to Mars in the decades after. "If astronauts ever want to take more than a few steps and explore, they will need new suits," says Newman.
Eschewing the bulky inflation bladders and associated equipment that can cause a space-suit system to weigh as much as 300 lbs., Newman went with layers of nylon and spandex wrapped tightly around the body. Contoured according to maps of the wearer's body in motion, the suit creates a mobile, skeleton-like shell that protects the astronaut with mechanical counterpressure. Air is certainly needed for breathing but not as protection against the vacuum. "It is like a second skin," says Newman.
The BioSuit is nowhere near ready to fly. Newman is still working out the kinks not the least being that the current design needs to exert a little more counterpressure to work. To sustain life, the model must provide pressure of at least 4.4 lbs. per sq. in. (psi) a little less than one-third of the pressure exerted by Earth's atmosphere. So far, the suits have consistently produced only 2.9 psi. Newman hasn't fully solved the problem yet, but she suspects that it has to do with how the material is following or failing to follow—what's known as the body's lines of nonextension, or areas of the skin that do not stretch when the overall form is in motion.
Newman estimates that all the refinements will take about 10 more years, which means the BioSuit should be ready when the next round of lunar missions begins. With the suit's help, the next giant leaps that astronauts take on the moon will be more than metaphorical.
Next Gerhard Neukum