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Sleek, Smart Spacesuits Are on the Horizon

Researchers across the country are starting to develop the spacesuit of the future. And it's a lot sexier.

by Amy Shira Teitel
May 6 2012, 4:10pm

Spacesuits are poised to go the way of the cell phone – once bulky and cumbersome, researchers are working on making them slim and smart. In the future, astronauts might be wearing specially engineered garments that combine the life-preserving features of a spacesuit with augmented reality technology that could intuit the wearer's needs.

Spacesuits give astronauts the comfort of an atmosphere in a wearable, mobile unit. Our bodies like the pressure the atmosphere places on us, so spacesuits are filled with pressurized gas. Breathing is pretty awesome, so oxygen circulation gives astronauts something to breathe. We all like a nice, balmy summer day, so climate control units keep astronauts from freezing or overheating. Spacesuits are made with layers of specially crafted fabrics to protect astronauts from radiation, a role our atmosphere plays that we often don't think about. activity – EVAs or spacewalks – they need that protection in a handy, wearable suit.

Classic spacesuits are bulky and heavy, which makes it a very good thing they're worn in weightless space. Think about big the suits are that astronauts wear outside the International Space Station, or even the suits worn on the Moon – Neil Armstrong's weighed 200 pounds. For a few hours on the surface or out in space, a big bulky suit might be a nuisance, but its manageable.

But that will change when men go further and stay in space longer, on missions to asteroids or Mars for example. As missions duration goes from months in space to years, the demands of spacesuits will change.

Suits that are lighter, smaller, more durable, and easier to care for will trump the old designs. This is the model being constructed by researchers at MIT, led by Dava Newman. Called the BioSuit, the design uses mechanical counter pressure rather than gas pressure to simulate the atmosphere on Earth. Tightly wrapped layers of a special material that is both flexible and protective to the astronaut are fitted close to the body. It's a much slimmer design, currently in a prototype stage, reminiscent of sexy spacesuits in sci-fi movies.

It’s a look that holds a certain cache among girls, says Dava. "A lot of young girls are completely turned on by the design of the Bio-Suit. And they come up to me when I give talks at schools, and they think it's pretty neat that it might be a spacesuit for a female astronaut. And oh, by the way, they think they might want to be an astronaut."

Other features will set advanced spacesuit technology apart from the past; resistance to bacteria and recyclability could even become necessary features of future spacesuits. This is what a small team of Advanced Exploration Systems engineers from NASA's Johnson Space Center are thinking about. It's a mix of functional clothing and wearable technology.

The idea is for spacesuits to be loaded with sensors and circuitry. This technology could monitor a wearer's vitals in real time or analyze the wearer's environment. Imagine a space suit that could collect information and display it to the wearer in a readable format on a screen inside his helmet, anything from environmental features to maps.

This Motherboard clip takes a look at Final Frontier Design’s new spacesuit model, which offers increased articulation, less weight, and a significantly lower price tag.

The central technology would be some type of augmented reality, the same technology that is being developed to help astronauts treat one another for illness and injury when they're far from home.

Cory Simon, an engineer in the Avionics System Division of Johnson's Engineering Directorate, is leading the smart-spacesuit effort. "We are really focused on displays and controls, human interfaces," he says. The goal, down the road, is "to have an operational space control capability… With augmented reality, you could look at someone and face-recognition technology would overlay a wealth of information about them and your previous conversations," Simon explains.

It isn't just astronauts that stand to gain from this technology. Earthly applications range from clothing for doctors that pull up and display a patient's medical history by facial recognition to safety tunics worn by bicycle or motorcycle riders that incorporate turn signals and caution lights. The spinoff technologies would be amazing.

It's possible we'll see these types of changes into spacesuits with NASA's next manned spaceflight program – we're still seven years away from the first manned mission of the Orion program. Sleek suits could make the image of a Michelin Man-looking astronauts on the Moon really archaic really soon.