Talking Spacesuits with U of M
Next Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.
Brad Holschuh, an assistant professor and co-director of the U of M's Wearable Tech Lab in the College of Design, answers questions about modern-day advances to the Spacesuit, and how he expects technology will continue to evolve in the future.
Q: How have Spacesuits changed since the first Lunar Landing?
Prof. Holschuh: In many ways, the modern Spacesuit — known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) — is functionally very similar to suits astronauts wore on the Moon in the 1960s. Modern space operations have focused entirely on activity in Earth orbit, so one important difference between Apollo-era suits and the EMU system is that EMU is not designed for any lower-body mobility tasks (e.g. walking). Suits from the Apollo era had to contend with the challenge of walking and hopping in partial gravity, thus there was a greater emphasis on making Lunar suits lightweight.
Q: What are the most important design features for a Spacesuit to have?
Prof. Holschuh: Space is a hostile and unforgiving environment, so a Spacesuit should be thought of as a fully functional, body-shaped spacecraft. When an astronaut puts on a Spacesuit and exits their habitat/vehicle, it must serve every function necessary to keep the astronaut alive: provide oxygen to breathe, pressure to offset the vacuum of space, temperature and humidity control, elimination of carbon dioxide due to breathing, protection from radiation, access to food/water, communication systems, and even systems allowing the astronaut to go to the bathroom in the suit. On top of those functions, the suit must be low mass and flexible enough to allow the astronaut to move around to complete their tasks, either in zero gravity (e.g., in Earth orbit) or partial gravity (e.g., on the surface of the Moon or Mars).
Q: What are the most common issues with today’s Spacesuits?
Prof. Holschuh: The most common issue today is their stiffness. These are inflated garments — effectively, balloons shaped like the human body — filled with pressurized oxygen gas. This pressurized oxygen serves two very important purposes: one, it provides the breathing gas required for respiration; and two, it provides compression against the body to mimic the weight of the atmosphere that we experience on Earth (we need this in order to breathe and not experience conditions like decompression sickness). While pressurization is critical for life support it results in an unfortunate side effect — the soft materials of the suit stiffen significantly. Not only does this constant stiffness/resistance cause fatigue as astronauts spacewalk for hours at a time, but it can also actually cause injury as the astronauts constantly battle their own suit as they work.
Q: In 50 more years, what do you think Spacesuits will look like?
Prof. Holschuh: The single biggest innovation in future Spacesuits will be abandoning the inflated “balloon-style” suits in favor of skin-tight, “leotard-style” garments. Rather than placing the astronaut in a gas-pressurized atmosphere, these skin-tight suits achieve body-compression with an extremely tight-fitting garment. If done successfully, skin-tight suits offer the same life support capabilities as a typical inflated Spacesuit, but with none of the associated stiffness that comes with inflation.
Q: How are University of Minnesota College of Design faculty and students helping improve Spacesuit design?
Prof. Holschuh: Many current challenges that affect Spacesuit design are active areas of research in the College of Design Human Dimensioning Lab (HDL) and Wearable Technology Lab (WTL). In many ways, Spacesuits are no different than any other functional garment, so apparel design students and faculty are perfectly suited to improve the design, construction, and fit of modern Spacesuits. Students also have an opportunity to participate in a semester-long design challenge hosted by the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, which pairs them with NASA mentors to work on real-world functional clothing challenges associated with human spaceflight and culminates with presentations to NASA engineers.
Brad Holschuh, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of wearable technology and apparel design in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, where he co-directs the Wearable Technology Lab and directs the Human Factors and Ergonomics graduate program. Dr. Holschuh’s research focuses on the use of wearable technology to improve human performance both in space and on Earth, with a specific focus on integrating active materials technology into wearable systems. He is a faculty affiliate in the MnDRIVE Initiative and holds additional graduate faculty appointments in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics, Human Factors/Ergonomics, and Design.
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