Even though they perform superhuman feats, astronauts always look a little ridiculous. Their clunky pressurized spacesuits are functional—they provide oxygen, scrub CO2, and keep astronauts safe from the elements—but they aren't exactly well-suited for the kind of intensive exploration that astronauts will conduct when humans finally reach Mars.
Dava Newman, a speaker at this year's TEDWomen event in San Francisco, has spent more than a decade working on a sleeker, better spacesuit for Mars exploration. The MIT aerospace engineering professor's Spiderman-like "BioSuit" will finally make astronauts look sexy, and ensure that they can explore difficult terrain without tripping over the bulk of the nearly 300-pound suit in use today.
The invention looks so sleek because it's pressurized close to the skin—an advance made possible by tension lines on the suit (those are the Spiderman lines) that don't break when an astronaut bends their arms or knees. Active materials, like nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter, getting Newman to her goal of designing a suit that has 30% of the atmosphere's pressure—the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.
Newman's BioSuit is also resilient. If the suit gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a type of space-grade Ace Bandage. That's not possible with today's suits. "With a gas-pressurized shell, it's game over with a puncture," Newman tells me after her TED talk. And while today's suits can only be fitted to people 5' 5" and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program, the BioSuit can be built for smaller people as well.
Newman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . The technology could be used to increase athletic performance (there is evidence showing the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system) or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. "We'll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it," she says. "But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better."
With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA: she won't discuss specifics, but says that it her suit is significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn't in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars—whenever that may be.