The Mars Generation Suits Up

The Martian’s Matt Damon looks great lost in space, but what will next-gen space suits really need to be like?

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Whenever Hollywood stars venture out into infinity and beyond, they get a slick new wardrobe upgrade. Gravity’s Sandra Bullock has her hip-hugging Sokol suit. The Martian’s Matt Damon sports color-coordinated Red Planet gear.

graphic link to martian future report

But real astronauts aren’t as lucky. They get stuck wearing the same old space duds, sometimes for decades. Space travel is expensive, and space attire itself is costly and difficult to make. So even if some of our current space suits are based on patents from the 1950s, why not keep using those same designs if they’ve already been tested and still work?

Nonetheless, because of the burgeoning human-travel commercial space industry, and renewed interest in going to Mars spurred on by the spectacular Curiosity rover mission and the Mars One space settler effort, space suits are getting another look.

In this issue we have two articles on Mars-generation space suits. “Tomorrow’s Space Suit: Personal “Gravity Pack” Comes Standard,” by Michele Carpenter and Kevin Duda from Draper Laboratory, describes how personal “gravity packs”—suits with gyroscopes embedded in them—could help astronauts stay upright and aware of their orientation, as well as help protect them from the physical deterioration experienced in zero-g environments. Senior Associate Editor Rachel Courtland’s piece, “Suiting Up for the Red Planet,” walks us through NASA’s extravehicular Z-2 suit, which could be used for Mars exploration.

NASA has also, through its Small Business Innovation Research program and Commercial Crew Program, been reaching out beyond traditional space-suit manufacturers like David Clark Co. and ILC Dover to seek out new intravehicular activity (IVA) suit designs that are lighter, less expensive, and more flexible.

Out in New York City’s resurging Brooklyn Navy Yard, Final Frontier Design (FFD), under the leadership of Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev, is hard at work trying to meet these requirements. Southern is a tech-infused designer with a background in body armor and costume design. For over 20 years, Moiseev was the lead engineer at NPP Zvevda, the Russian space-equipment manufacturer. Together with Kari Love and Virgil Calejesan, this four-person company has come up with a new space suit well regarded enough to be awarded a NASA Space Act Agreement. FDD shares the distinction with SpaceX, which has about 4,000 employees; Alliant Techsystems, which has several thousand employees; and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, with more than 3,000 workers.

FFD is hoping to sell its pressurized IVA suit to the commercial market—companies like Boeing, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic. Its garment is 4.5 kilograms lighter than the current NASA IVA suit and about a third of the cost. It is highly adjustable and now, through the magic of 3-D metal printing, it can be readily reconfigured for different flight vehicles.

FFD recently got a new contract from NASA to develop a mechanical counterpressure glove for the Mars mission. Space gloves are notoriously difficult to make flexible and protective; spacewalkers have said that working on the International Space Station in them is like trying to change a tire wearing baseball gloves.

Ultimately, FFD would like to produce mechanical counterpressure suits as well. These would be like MIT’s proof-of-concept BioSuit, pioneered by Dava Newman, who is now NASA’s deputy administrator. Mechanical counterpressure gloves and suits would be safer than their pressurized counterparts and have a much better range of motion.

When we did our “Why Mars? Why Now?” issue in 2009, we got a lot of the usual comments: complaints about the expense and about prioritizing space exploration over our many intractable earthbound problems. But it’s not an either/or proposition. Those of us who grew up during the 45 years since the Apollo landing expected humans to be on Mars already. Space travel captures people’s imagination. Technologies that benefit earthlings will undoubtedly stream out of developing the technologies to go to Mars, as they have from previous space programs. The kids who will make up our future generations of scientists and technologists assume we are going to Mars. Why not suit up?

This article originally appeared in print as “Space Suits for the Mars Generation.”

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