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As far as vacation spots go, Mars wouldn’t be on the top of many people’s lists. Sure, Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, might be good for a ’gram or two. But Mars, on the whole, isn’t a pleasant place to hang out.
There’s its inhospitable terrain, for one, which is mostly canyons, volcanoes, craters, and dry lake beds, and not much else. Mars has a thin atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, without an ozone-protecting magnetosphere or a charged-particle-trapping Van Allen belt to buffer its surface — and anyone on it — from cosmic rays and solar radiation. Temperatures can vary wildly too, even at the equator, swinging from 70 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day to minus 100 degrees at night.
Plus, intrepid tourists will have to brace themselves for violent dust storms — much like the one Matt Damon struggled with at the beginning of The Martian — that can span continent-size distances and persist for weeks at a time.
Then there’s the question of what to wear.
Abigail Harrison thinks about this question a lot. On Earth, she likes to keep her outfits interesting — “bold, bright, and unique” — but she would trade everything in a heartbeat for a spacesuit for Mars. She’s harbored the same dream since she was knee-high: Not only does Harrison want to be an astronaut, she wants to be the first astronaut to leave tracks on the red planet.
Today, Harrison’s dream is closer than ever. She’s finishing up her junior year at Wellesley College, where she double-majors in astrobiology and Russian. She’s also deeply embedded in the space community. As “Astronaut Abby,” Harrison runs The Mars Generation, an advocacy group that promotes STEM education, trains “space ambassadors,” and provides scholarships to Space Camp, a program run by the nonprofit US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
More vitally for Harrison, both federal and commercial enterprises have embarked on a new “space race” that could see the first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s if you’re NASA, or as early as the mid-2020s if you’re SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“We’ll be sending something very beautiful to Mars in the very near future,” he said in a Cabinet meeting in March. “And we’re going to areas that nobody thought possible.”
And when that happens, Harrison will need the perfect outfit.
Amy Ross, an advanced spacesuit designer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, knows it’s only a matter of time before her services are required for a manned mission to Mars. And when that happens, she’ll be prepped and ready to go.
“My job is to make sure that we have a technology that’s available,” Ross says. “So when I’m called upon to build a suit for a Mars mission, even if I don’t have the full configuration on hand, I’ll have what you need to make it.”
To produce a so-called “planetary exploration suit,” NASA will have to return to the drawing board. Neither the orange launch-and-entry “pumpkin suits” that astronauts wore inside the space shuttle nor the beefier EMUs used for zero-G jaunts outside the International Space Station will cut it on the Martian frontier. The first has only limited life support; the second isn’t designed for walking.
Even the suits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore on the moon will be far from adequate for extravehicular activities, or EVAs, on the Martian surface. Because Mars has twice as much ground to cover and more than double its gravity, exploration on the red planet will be more physically taxing than moonwalking. This means that the suits will have to be lighter and allow greater flexibility in the waist, knees, and ankles.
“On the moon, you might have a few thousand cycles of walking needed,” Ross says. “When you go to Mars, it’s potentially millions of walking cycles that you need to design a suit for. So the kind of reliability and durability required for the suit is just impressively increased.”
A spacesuit basically functions like a wearable spaceship, providing a livable cocoon under these harsh conditions yet is durable, reliable, and flexible enough for astronauts to “science the shit” out of Mars.
“When you go and potentially consider spending 500 days on the surface of Mars, your suit needs to be kind of a tool you don’t even think about,” Ross says. “We need to make sure that astronauts can just get in that suit and do whatever they need to do for the day, whether it’s the geology, the science that they need to do, or if it’s to go change the tire of of a Mars rover.”
But textiles and coatings might behave differently on Earth than on Mars. Low pressure, solar radiation, and those aforementioned dust storms might conspire to speed up deterioration or make the materials more brittle. And although they can provide a baseline, mock environments, such as NASA’s “Mars chamber,” are no substitute for real-world testing.
Which is why when the as-yet-unnamed Mars 2020 rover — the heir to Curiosity — gets to work in two years, it will carry with it a small payload of Teflon, polycarbonates, and polyurethanes. By taking readings of those samples and comparing them with results of tests performed on Earth, Ross and her team will be able to figure out how long a spacesuit will last on Mars before an astronaut has to rely on one in a life-or-death situation.
“The dust environment, the chemically reactive environment, and the ultraviolet radiation environment are all things we’ll have to pay attention to,” she adds.
Human bodies need to be surrounded by the right amount of atmospheric pressure to survive. Too much, like in the deepest parts of the ocean, and your organs will collapse like an empty soda can. Too little, as in the case of high altitudes or in space, and water and fluids in the body will start to boil away. To combat this problem, NASA fills its suits with pressurized gas — think human-shaped airline cabins.
The problem with this method of pressurization, according to Dava Newman, a former deputy administrator at NASA and the Apollo professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, is that the suits wind up looking and feeling like rigid balloons or the Michelin Man. They encumber movement and quickly exhaust the wearer.
“Astronauts who perform repair work in space find the stiffness of spacesuit gloves especially challenging,” Newman wrote in the January 2012 issue of NASA’s ASK magazine. “Imagine manipulating tools and small parts for hours wearing gas-filled gloves that fight against the flexing of your fingers.”
Newman has created a skintight elastic suit that uses shape-memory alloys to apply mechanical pressure directly to the skin. Dubbed the Biosuit, the catsuit-like garment features a complex web of cables and coils covered by seams. When an electric current is applied, the coils contract, essentially “shrink-wrapping” its wearer with the correct amount of pressure. Cooling the coils loosens the suit’s grip, making it easy to don and doff.
Newman still has kinks to work out in her suit, including how to incorporate a life support system that delivers oxygen, thermal control, and other necessities without adding too much bulk. Perhaps a modular system might in order, one that allows astronauts to carry only what they need based on their assignment.
But while Ross and her department at NASA are piqued by the general concept, which would allow future space explorers to move more naturally and with fewer restraints, they prefer to stick with a known quantity — at least for now.
“Pressurized suits are our primary task because they’re obviously feasible; we fly them now,” she says. Newman’s Biosuit is a technology that’s still in development. “When it’s ready, if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, then that’s when we’ll buy it,” Ross says.
That’s not to say mechanical counterpressure technology is completely verboten. It just might be deployed on a smaller scale, like in gloves.
In 2007, a Pratt Institute student named Ted Southern entered NASA’s Astronaut Glove Challenge as part of his MFA thesis. Working with Russian spacesuit designer Nikolay Moiseev, Southern created a glove that won him second place, as well as a contract from Houston.
Now at the helm of Final Frontier Design, which he founded with NASA’s $100,00 prize money, Southern says he is “tantalizingly close” to developing an EVA glove that is lighter, more supple, and less unwieldy than those currently in use. Final Frontier’s design uses compressive fibers and small inflatable cushions to apply pressure across the surface of the hand. (Like “Spanx for your hands,” Air & Space magazine deftly described.)
“It’s a non-ideal solution and I wish there was a better way, but it’s one that works today,” Southern told the publication last September.
Virtually every epic space movie, from The Right Stuff to Armageddon, pivots on a single scene — you know the one. It’s the trailer-shot moment where our heroes, spacesuited and booted, stride toward the camera in slow motion as the rousing score builds to a crescendo. The audience cheers, thumps their chests, even sheds a tear or two. There’s something viscerally stirring about watching astronauts answering the call to adventure — perhaps the ultimate adventure — and if you don’t feel anything you’re probably dead inside.
Spacesuits look pretty cool, but … should they?
Cathleen Lewis, curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum considers spacesuits works of art. From the earliest flight suits to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo suits to the ISS EMU, she loves them all.
“They’re complex machines and works of art,” she says. “In X-rays, the interior workings of the suits look like Rube Goldberg apparatus — they’re very elaborate.”
Lewis likes to remind people that Russell Colley, the man whose pressurized flight suit allowed pioneering aviator Wiley Post to reach hitherto impossible altitudes, originally studied to become a fashion designer, “so he clearly had an aesthetic eye.” (Colley later went on to design spacesuits for the Project Mercury astronauts; in his obituary in 1996, the New York Times referred to him as the “Calvin Klein of spacewear.”)
As much as spacesuits are designed to function, first and foremost, there are also plenty of design choices that can be made along the way. It’s why the suits that Russian cosmonauts wear look so different from NASA and European Space Agency suits. “Those are just aesthetic choices that the designers have made,” Lewis explains.
“I think space exploration is the most exciting thing going on,” she said. “And heroic-looking suits might help make more of a human connection for folks.”
Michael Lye, a professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, understands better than most the push and pull between form and function. Lye and his students built a full-scale model of spacesuit that “crew members” simulating Mars missions on Earth can wear on their EVAs.
“Functionality is certainly critical, but at the same time, nothing humans do is devoid of aesthetics,” Lye says. Not to mention that long before men walked on the moon, people were exploring the stars in spandex and fishbowl helmets on the covers of pulp fiction books and magazines.
“Once people see something, it becomes a way of thinking about the future, and I think aesthetics play a role in that,” Lye says. “It’s much easier to get people behind ideas they find exciting and interesting than it is if they think they’re not.”
Indeed when Abigail “Astronaut Abby” Harrison tours aerospace startups like Final Frontier, the thing that strikes her most about their designs is how sleek they look, “like something you would see in a sci-fi movie or you would imagine out of a sci-fi book.”
While she realizes that outward appearances aren’t traditionally valued in spacesuit design, she also thinks that aesthetics will become increasingly important when recruitment for Mars missions ramps up.
“The entire world is excited about space, and so when you have these really sleek, exciting-looking spacesuits, that captures people’s imagination,” Harrison says. “It allows people to really connect with these missions on a different level, and they’ll hopefully support space exploration more and be more excited about it.”
And who knows? Some day in the near future, it might even be the sight of Harrison in a spacesuit, kicking up red dust on Mars, that inspires a whole new generation to follow in her bootsteps. And by then they’ll know exactly how to dress for the job they want.