BioSuit: The Future of Space Gear Is Being Built Out of MIT

New materials and designs could allow outer-space travelers to move more freely.

Photo via TED Women/Dava Newman

Photo via TED Women/Dava Newman

One day, moving around in outer space—and walking on Mars—could become a whole lot more comfortable for astronauts, thanks to the innovative techniques being developed by an aeronautics professor at MIT.

“The BioSuit—the one that gets a lot of media coverage—is a concept no one has seen before, and we have been working on it for a long time,” said Dava Newman, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT. “We are doing great research. If we were fully funded, we could have it working in two years, no problem.”

Newman has been working on various types of wearable outer-space gear with MIT students and designers from around the world for more than a decade, focusing specifically on three forms of aeronautics spacesuits: The BioSuit, an exercise suit, and a layer of material that can be worn inside of the typical bulky space gear that NASA astronauts have grown accustomed to during space missions.

Newman made waves at a recent TED talk in San Francisco last week, TED Women, where she showed off examples of the work she has been doing for the last 12 years.

According to Newman, the BioSuit, which captured the audience’s attention, is an example of “new wearable technologies” being developed at MIT’s Extra-Vehicular Activity Lab (EVA). The suit system could one day provide life support for astronauts in an atmosphere like the one on Mars by relying on the “mechanical counter-pressure” built into the suit, where pressure is applied to the entire body through a tight-fitting material. The suit is also equipped with a helmet to cover an explorer’s head.

“You have to apply a third of an atmosphere to keep someone alive in the vacuum of space. With polymers or stretchy elastic, you can get about 20 percent there, but we have to get to 30 percent to make it work. So now, using our active material, we have nailed the extra 10 percent so we can fully pressurize the suit,” said Newman. “When we go to another planet, we could definitely have a useable flight system going.”

Newman said the greatest problem with the standard suits that have allowed astronauts to survive in outer space for so many missions is their rigidity, which reduces their mobility both inside a spacecraft, and when performing repair work in space.

She said the air needed to supply the necessary pressure to the astronauts essentially turns them into “stiff balloons” that make movement difficult and tiring.

Her form-fitting BioSuit could one day allow space explorers to move “freely” and with more agility when performing their work. “Work in active materials is one of our big focuses,” said Newman.

The suit would also potentially be safer than a traditional suit. Newman said an abrasion or puncture in a bulky space suit would cause a major emergency, but a small breach in the BioSuit could be easily repaired.

While the idea is stellar, the money to launch the suit forward has caused the project to slow down a little. For years Newman said she was receiving funding from NASA, from 2000 through 2005. “Without funding, we are sort of working on this one student at a time,” she said, referencing the help she receives from those enrolled at MIT. “We have a pretty extensive plan to get to a flight system for the BioSuit, and if that were in place and funded, in two years of full-on work, we could be ready.”

In the meantime, focus has been shifted toward some of her other designs.

Newman said by 2015, an exercise counter-measure suit, which can be worn inside of a space vessel, will go to launch with the European Space Agency to the International Space Station for a short mission. “The blue suit, it’s great,” she said. “The suit recreates body weight loading. It’s basically like your—it’s comfortable enough you can wear it all day, but you also get the benefit of the Gravity Loading Counter Measure Suit.”

Newman said the “blue suit” helps offset “body loading” that’s lost when in space, due to the loss of gravity, and helps work the muscles. “Typically, a person will experience 30 percent muscle atrophy and 40 percent muscle loss on a longer mission,” she said. “They have to be very custom fit.”

Below is an illustration that explains some of the technology involved in bringing the BioSuit to life.


Illustration Courtesy of Cam Brensinger