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Designing for the Stars of Outer Space

Meet the woman behind NASA's coming modular spacesuit

Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, headquarters of exciting attractions like the National Weather Center and Andy’s Alligator Fun Park, Lindsay Aitchison was destined for great things. On a road trip to Disney World one summer at the age of four, her family stopped off in Houston, Texas at the Johnson Space Center. One riveting IMAX film later, and her fate was sealed. She was going to work for NASA.

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Today Aitchison is NASA’s Deputy Project Manager of the Advanced Spacesuit Project. Her work days are pretty typical. She wakes up around 6:30AM, takes her dogs out, eats breakfast, and then designs spacesuits for astronauts to wear on Mars. You know, the usual.

Image: NASA

So where does one go to get a degree in spacesuit design? Parsons? RISD? Wrong. Aitchison earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue and her Masters in Human Factors Engineering from Wright State, all while completing five co-op tours (special internships) at NASA. But don’t worry, none of this has gone to her head. When Aitchison tests out a spacesuit, she still puts it on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

Currently, her team is hard at work testing NASA’s Z-2 prototype exploration spacesuit. The aesthetic of the suit was voted on by the public in 2014. Wired with flashy electroluminescent lighting and a hard shell torso described by Aitchison as a "tank top", the Z-2 would make a great $4.4 million Halloween costume.

Image: NASA

The most notable difference between the current prototype and former iterations is the suit’s compatibility with women’s bodies. For the first time in history, half of the candidates selected in 2013 to be NASA astronaut trainees are women. Aitchison says the last spacesuits designed in the 1980’s were created under the assumption that female astronauts were basically just tiny men.

"If you know anything about clothing design, women are definitely not just smaller versions of men. Most obviously, women’s breasts can get in the way. So we are thinking more about where we put things like drink bags and where we have hard points in the suit," said Aitchison in a phone interview with Racked.

During the Apollo program, the crew was assigned well in advance, giving designers time to create custom spacesuits for each astronaut. The final crews for future missions to Mars and the Moon won’t be assigned for at least a decade or more, so engineers are now working on a modular design. Astronauts will be able to mix and match pants, gloves, sleeves, and other parts to fit their various proportions. "Having modular spacesuits means everyone will be accommodated, but it may not be as great of a fit as a completely customized suit would be," said Aitchison. On the other hand, if say an astronaut’s elbow joint wears down while collecting Moon dust, she’ll be able to borrow a replacement elbow from a friend.

The Z-2 spacesuit is designed for easy exploration on the Red planet, the Moon, and any other landform where a spacecraft can touch down. The flexible material of the sleeves and pants allow astronauts to bend to the ground and pick up samples, as well as lift objects over their head. Aitchison says going from kneeling to standing in the 150 pound spacesuit requires muscle and balance. The Z-2 is a pressurized design made from layers of high-tech materials that are inflated until taut. The inflation compensates for some of the weight, but moving around in the spacesuit is still strenuous. Aitchison recommends her Crossfit routine to stay in shape for testing. "Doing weighted lunges with a 65 pound barbell is the closest feeling to getting up in the spacesuit that I’ve ever experienced," said Aitchison. When not pumping iron or utilizing her genius brain, Aitchison enjoys watching romcoms and reading Vogue.

Image: NASA

Her design inspiration comes from unexpected sources. After reading about Fabrican on the best inventions of the year list in a 2010 issue of Time magazine, she wondered if the spray-on fabric could be adapted to repair spacesuits on the go. When she heard about singer Nicole Scherzinger, of former Pussycat Dolls fame wearing a CuteCircuit dress that displayed a Twitter feed in real time, she imagined a spacesuit with a live feed of mission instructions built right into the garment.

NASA also seeks inspiration from engineers working on industrial and athletic apparel. "If I were to leave NASA as an industry, I would definitely want to go into something to do with evaluating athletic apparel for human factors," said Aitchison. Perhaps in the future she’ll work for a line like Y-3, a commercial spaceflight outerwear collaboration between Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto and Adidas.

But for now she says she’s enjoying the perks of working for NASA. You mean gourmet cafeterias, nap pods, and free pens? Not exactly. "For one, I get to test spacesuits out in all these different environments which is just crazy cool," said Aitchison. She recommends a stroll around the Rockyard, NASA’s simulated alien land, or a dip in a 6.2 million gallon pool called the "Neutral Buoyancy Lab" to get a feel for how the spacesuit would fit on a spacewalk. If you seek a bigger thrill, take a ride on NASA’s aptly named "Vomit Comet," a rollercoaster-like parabolic aircraft that simulates microgravity.

Aitchison says despite the seriousness of the work, she and her colleagues make plenty of jokes on the job. "We’re kind of nerdy. Nerdy fun is not necessarily fun for everyone else, but we have a lot of laughs," said Aitchison. "We have fun with acronyms. One of the favorite acronyms I came up with is a test called SPAM. SPAM stands for Suit Port Airlock Module. But it was fun to say we’re doing SPAM testing today."

Image: NASA

Naturally, we asked this extremely accomplished engineering professional how astronauts manage to pee-pee while wearing the spacesuit. "Oh that’s one of the best questions!" said Aitchison. "Our astronauts wear what is called a maximum absorbency garment or ‘mag’ for short. Which is basically a diaper, but that doesn’t sound nearly as cool as maximum absorbency garment." So beneath every great astronaut is a soggy diaper? "The wicking fabric we use is actually very efficient and the air in the suit helps keep it dry," said Aitchison. The mags are designed to hold over a liter of urine, so over-caffeinated space travelers will be all set.

Could you wear the spacesuit around town, say to a bar? "They discourage us from doing that around here since they are one of a kind items," said Aitchison. "Actually I guess you could, but it would be pretty disappointing when you try to take a drink through your helmet."

One small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind.

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