October 14, 2010
They look cool, they weigh a ton and they can save your life. But who designs the space suits our astronauts wear, how is it done, and what might they look like in the future? As part of Smithsonian’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, Argentinean aerospace engineer Pablo De Leon will be discussing this and more tomorrow, at 12:30 and 2:30, at the National Air and Space Museum. De Leon is the director of the Space Suit Laboratory at the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, and I got to grill him a bit in advance via email below:
What first drew you to space suit design?
Actually, when I was in elementary school in Argentina, I was about 9 years old and I remember seeing some astronauts on TV. I think it was during the Skylab program. The American astronauts were getting ready for the repair mission to Skylab, and I drew a rough sketch of how I thought the EVA [extra-vehicular activity/the space walk] was going to be. At that time I was already fascinated with space, since I saw the lunar landings. The first actual design came a lot later, in 1990. I designed the 4S-A1, a training space suit.
Do you ever consider aesthetic appeal when designing suits, or is it all based on functionality?
It is all based in functionality. I don’t even consider the aesthetics. However, I consider the space suits as very beautiful pieces of hardware. That functionality makes them very aesthetic. At least it seems to me.
What are the most frustrating constraints placed on you when designing space suits, that is, ones that wouldn’t be obvious to someone outside the industry?
Well, it depends. Each suit is developed for a particular mission scenario, so sometimes the constraints are specific for that mission. One example is physical constraints. For a very small spacecraft the suit has to be stowed in a very small space, and it is difficult to make a suit really small when stored. Fitting is another complex thing to do. People come in a variety of shapes, and it is almost impossible to build a one-size-fits-all suit. And that is normally one of the requirements. It’s very difficult to accomplish. Another thing is that in space we humans are a very weak species. Any change of temperature, pressure, or atmospheric composition can have a deadly effect on us, so a constraint is that–us.
What recent advances have made your job easier?
In the last years there have been a series of great new textile materials that made our jobs easier. Composite materials are one area with a lot of new developments: Kevlar honeycomb structures, carbon fibers, new resins. All improvements to make more durable, lightweight and stronger structures. When I started in this field 20 years ago we used to build a cast with plaster of Paris!
Are you a hard suit or soft suit guy?
Depends on the mission, but I guess I am more of a soft suit guy. I think that is because I believe we humans are very flexible, and we have a great degree of mobility in our body, so textile materials adapt easier than rigid elements. If we were, say, a turtle, I would rather use a hard suit, but we can work better with a soft suit. At least until we find the way to produce a high mobility, lightweight suit, so we can use it on planetary surfaces, such as Mars or the Moon, without pre-breathing, which is a problem in current soft suits. [To prevent an occurrence of the bends, astronauts prebreathe pure oxygen so that nitrogen gas in the bloodstream is replaced by pure oxygen.]
Currently, about how much does one space suit cost?
Difficult to say, a suit of the kind that we produce at UND, which are experimental prototype suits, and are developed for analog environments, cost about $100,000 apiece. A suit such as the ones that are being designed for commercial space run between $50,000 and $100,000 apiece. The suits being used now at the International Space Station cost many millions, but they were built to last decades. So, again, it depends on the space suit.
You’ve been working on a new suit designs up at the University of North Dakota. What improvements have you made?
Most of our work deals with improvements on mobility for planetary, or walking suits, as opposed to the Zero-G suits used in the ISS nowadays. We made several mobility improvements, particularly to allow better walking and working capabilities for when we return to the Moon and explore the surface of Mars. We also have experts in biomedical sensors, because our suits need an array of sensors to relay the information of the test subject to us wirelessly and in real time. We also have several composite materials experts that work with us to select the best materials for the hard elements of the suits. So it is not a one person job to develop a new suit–it is a team effort.
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