Dava Newman has spent over a decade working on a sleeker spacesuit for Mars exploration.

Newman's invention is 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 suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter.

2013-12-10

This Sleek Spiderman Spacesuit Could Take Astronauts To Mars

When humans go to live on Mars, those 300-pound space suits are going to get old fast. The Biosuit, with its tight-fitting Spiderman look, could make exploring the red planet a bit sexier.

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.

Newman in the spacesuit. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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.

After four months simulating a trip to Mars, one of the most important questions for researchers was: how do you cook good food on Mars?

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.

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99 Comments

  • ajkenney

    I can't believe the number of idiots in this comments section. We may be looking at the next generation of spacesuits that will open a new frontier for humanity and, all anyone can seem to comment (for the most part anyway) about is discrimination! Focus people! We're talking about enabling the next great expansion of the human race! Where are the comments about that? Comparatively speaking, discrimination is a rather mundane subject, eh?

  • Michael Graves

    Wow! Amazing work! I look forward to seeing this suit in action both for space exploration and to help people with CP!

  • Vique

    I love the idea and the intelligence behind this and I hope to hear that it's being funded in the future!

    I also love how this article is about something great and interesting and all people can seem to do in the comments is put a negative spin on it.

  • Johan Garces

    they have Ted woman so they have a place to categorize videos like this

    The US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, made a surprise
    appearance at TEDWomen on Wednesday, Dec. 8. “The United States,” she
    begins, “has made empowering women and girls a cornerstone of our
    foreign policy.” In the 16-minute talk above, she details why it’s of
    vital international importance that every girl in the world get a chance
    to pursue her hopes and dreams. (Recorded at TEDWomen, December 2010 in Washington, DC. Duration: 16:17)

    how is this sexist?..............

  • Drew

    I read about this for the first time in The Keepers: Tribulation. It was used for a soldiers in the Battle for Olympus Mons on Mars. The agility provided by the suit was obviously necessary for that

  • Trey Williams

    This looks very similar to flywire. If they were smart, they would look into a deal with Nike to secure additional funding. Promos would read something like "Nike - the official performance gear of space travel"

  • Anthony Reardon

    Right on. I remember watching this on one of those kids science learning shows a few years ago.

    I think people are underestimating the potential of this technology just because it aims so high. The one application that stands out to me is light weight form-fitting compression sleeves for knees and ankles that can provide for all the mobility an athlete needs, as well as structural protection against catastrophic ligament damage. I mean, right there you've got a multi-million dollar market.

    Something stands out to me in the comments about the sexiness of the design. I think it matters, especially if you're like the last ones on a planet, lol! Seriously, though, the beauty of functional design combined with aesthetic form is impressive for good reasons. I think I was watching some of the designers from Apple giving a tour of a new design museum where they actually have an old spacesuit on display. The old apparatus kind of has this robust quality to it that suggests the limits of technology, but the bravery to push the limits, and the criticality that every single detail was a matter of life and death. The more form fitting design also is suggestive of how far we can go, the drive to innovate toward more human-centered design, and I also think how in doing that you end up solving other problems like the catastrophic pressurization fail.

    So it's a beautiful thing. I think you could also say how the challenge to fund the research is kind of a dramatic obstacle itself, and the sexual appeal is a factor that can advance this further faster. You don't have to look so far as Mars either. I mean, if we are already talking about private space flights, then how about taking that one step further to private space walks. Tell me Richard Branson wouldn't buy in to the idea of a sexier space suit.

    Best, Anthony

  • dbrem

    The suit and its use of technologies are an innovative solution to a complex design challenge.

    The sad part of the article was the comment that the "Spiderman-like 'BioSuit' will finally make astronauts look sexy" - I can't imagine "sexy" was part of the design challenge.

    You can do better...

  • Pelle Karlsson

    Can't imagine it? Really? So somewhere alongcthe line they didn't think "sexy space girl"? Not even when choosing a thin female model with a posture that would give a pilates or yoga-instructor migraines for the photoshoot?

    So in this case science prevailed and just ss a bonus on the side, it looks really good on attractive people. Wow!

    Want some evian with that naive?

  • dbrem

    @pella instead of being an azz, maybe improve your reading comprehension.

    Of course the author thought "sexy space girl" and played up that angle of the story, at least visually.

    But from an engineering or design standpoint, I'm doubtful one of the design criteria was "how do we make a space girl sexy?".

    From a site that is supposed to focus on design, I'd have expected more value in discussing the challenges faced and innovative ways of solving them instead of the superficial aesthetics of the "sexy space girl".

  • Bill Jackson

    The concept of skin tight membrane suits is quite mature but they have to be made to fit very well and need inserts for concave areas. Some zipped up with inside membrane seals and some were arduous pull-ons (like elastic socks).
    Be interesting to see what here methods are

  • Weaver

    You think this suit looks *less* ridiculous than the current one? I guess there's truly no accounting for taste.

    Maybe the reason you think actual astronauts don't look "sexy" is because they aren't waif-thin like models, wearing lots of make-up, with professionally done hair, and stage lighting. Female astronauts in Hollywood movies look plenty sexy in current spacesuits -- mostly because of all that make-up, of course, but also because they invariably show us that they're wearing sexy underwear underneath.

    Even your professional models aren't going to look so "sleek" if they have to wear a giant diaper underneath that like a real astronaut.