NASA engineers are designing spacesuits for exploring Mars and beyond.
Years of being a NASA engineer have led Lindsay Aitchison to a surprising place. She spends a lot of time thinking about dust. How to keep it out of a spacesuit, where it can limit movement. How to stop it from creeping into the oxygen system, where it can start a fire. “So many issues come back to dust!” Aitchison told TFK.
Lindsay Aitchison clowns around on NASA’s zero-gravity plane.
Aitchison works on NASA’s Advanced Spacesuit Project. She and her team are developing suits for space exploration. Dust is just one of the many challenges they face. NASA plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. Before then, engineers must come up with the right suit.
In the past, when astronauts spent time on the surface of the moon, they were outside their craft for only a few hours. Mars will be different. “We’re talking about stays of up to 500 days,” Aitchison says. Suits will need to be easy to repair. One solution is to design modular suits, with pieces than can be swapped out. Another reason for the modular design? NASA has a diverse group of explorers. Half of the 2013 astronauts are women. The new suits must meet the needs of different body types.
BILL STAFFORD—NASA (2)
The Z-2 is NASA’s newest spacesuit. It is more lightweight than previous suits. Unlike the International Space Station (ISS), Mars has gravity. The suits astronauts wear on the ISS weigh about 330 pounds. On Mars, they will need lighter gear. The design team’s goal is to get the Z-2 suit down to 250 pounds.
Aitchison is an engineer. But she and her team look everywhere for innovative solutions. “We pick up everything from computer-gaming magazines to fashion magazines,” she says. They also use technology similar to what movie studios use to study human movement. Almost nothing is too wacky to try.
A Mars explorer must be able to bend his or her knees.
Being open to new ideas helps Aitchison and her team in their ultimate goal: preparing for a new age of space exploration. She is confident that they will meet the challenges ahead. “We will definitely have spacesuits ready to do that job when they’re ready to launch,” she says.