Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Dava Newman and Advanced Spacesuits

Friday night (April 24th), I had the wonderful opportunity to meet then-NASA Deputy Administrator Appointee Dr. Dava Newman (she was confirmed by the Senate Monday the 27th). She was giving a lecture at the Philosophical Society of Washington (DC) on [what else?!] advanced spacesuit research, which happens to be her forte.

She highlighted four different prototypes - two intra-vehicular and two extra-vehicular suits. She also made clear, and quite excitedly I might add, the potential worldwide medical impacts these types of suits could have.

But more on that later.

Because spacesuits.

The first suit is like a super compression suit, called the Gravity Loading Countermeasure Suit. It is made to mimic gravity by compressing the muscles constantly, therefore the astronaut's body is in a constant state of exercise. The hope is, simply by wearing it, they can decrease muscle atrophy and bone loss associated with extended spaceflight.

The second suit, also used while inside the capsule/station, is called the Variable Vector Countermeasure Suit. It is still a work in progress, but the suit is to have mini gyroscopes in strategic locations, which will orient a "down" direction, providing viscous resistance to the body during movements. The ideal size for these gyros are 1"-2", but the smallest they can make them functional right now are 6". Work in progress, but promising!

Then she dove into what everyone really wanted to hear about, which were the glamorous EVA EMUs. She showed the past EMUs and how bulky they are and how difficult it was to operate on the moon:

If we're going to Mars, we need to be more agile. We need a locomotion suit.
Then there is a segue into astronaut injuries for the Injury Comfort and Protection Suit. It's interesting. There have been dozens of documented - documented - injuries from NBL training. However, there are no documented cases of injuries from flight EVAs. I happened to have a gaggle of astronauts at Udvar-Hazy on Saturday, and I asked Rich Linnehan about this (he's logged a modest 42 hours of EVA time, including working extensively on Hubble). He said that training in NBL is brutal, he actually had to have shoulder surgery from injuries sustained in the pool. In space, it is completely different, so much easier on the body.

Dr. Newman and her teams from MIT have done research with the current and new prototypes with sensors, and revealed that pressurized suits restrict body movements by over 50%, especially the upper body. One of many short-term solutions is to offer customizable inflatable padding in trouble spots to alleviate injuries.

The last suit is by far the most interesting and outrageous. I am sure you've seen it grace articles the internet over:

The Human BioSuit. If the ladies at ILC Dover thought those suits were time-consuming, this bad boy has 340 meters of lines of non-extension. Well, what the heck is that?

Lines of non-extension are non-lineal lines that run along the human body. Body movement doesn't cause contraction or stretch. The suit utilizes this by placing tension elements in high strain areas like joints to enable constant pressure directly on the skin no matter how the body moves.
(Okay, it's more complicated and in-depth than this, but this was way over my head and I haven't yet had time to do my own research to understand it. My hope is to read up on it, then get to have conversations with her, because her passion is my passion.)

They use active materials (materials that contract/constrict with a current passed through) at critical points where constant pressure is an issue, like joints. There are questions as to whether 1/3 of Earth atmospheric pressure is adequate, as bre-breathing takes a lengthy and expensive period of time The suit already creates that amount of pressure across most of the body. What should be considered, instead, is the astronauts' daily atmospheric living conditions. Why is ISS pressurized to a full atmosphere? If you make it 2/3 atmosphere, it would be much easier to transition to and from EVAs. Dr. Newman is clearly thinking ahead to Mars.