The Suit That Will Get Us to Mars

Getting the first human to Mars in the 2030s hinges more on the relationship between science and the textiles industry than one might think.

“We will have people on the moon, hopefully by the mid 2020s. I hope we don’t get stuck on the Moon. I hope we can push further and get people to Mars. That’s my job,” said Dr. Dava Newman, the former Deputy Administrator of NASA and a leading MIT Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems.

Speaking at the MIT Future of Fabrics summit in Cambridge on Nov. 22, Newman, together with architect and industrial designer Guillermo Trotti and high-end sports performance company Dainese, is a key player in developing the spacesuit that will take the first NASA astronauts to Mars, a 34 million mile trip away from Earth.

The BioSuit is a pressurized garment that will be customized for various body types to fit like a second skin.  It's an extension of the SkinSuit, a compression outfit that has already been tested by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

Also developed with Dainese, the SkinSuit supports spinal elongation in space and helps reduce the risk of post-flight injury like a herniated or ‘slipped disk’ – which astronauts are at greater risk of experiencing when they return to Earth.

After all of its telescope-fixing missions and space station visits, NASA has performed over 26 shoulder surgeries on its astronauts. The stakes and the risks will be much higher when the first man, and or woman, steps foot onto the relentlessly cold Red Planet that sits fourth from the Sun.

Test suits recently unveiled by NASA are prepping astronauts for longer missions of up to six to eight hours, and are the fruit of over 20 years of research.  Dainese has been working with NASA, Trotti and Newman for the past ten to 15 years.

“You’re not going to the Moon and Mars to sit around. You need to be suited to search for evidence of life. That’s continuous motion. There will definitely be some bi-facing materials [like micro-meteriods],” Newman said, noting that ski-racing gear is perhaps the closest analogy to what her team is working on. “It’s like getting a shield — protective garments that can harden up on impact,” as astronauts pick up dust and rock samples to take back to Earth.

In an interview with NOWFASHION, overlooking the Boston skyline and the Charles River, Newman explained that Dainese and her research team are also currently working on developing a life support system that includes a “counter lung” pack . The ultimate caveat to completing the BioSuit development stage, Newman said, is outfitting the space suit with solar radiation protection.

“We’ve never gone there. We’ve been researching this for 20 years and there is no radiation protection. We are even considering wearables and thinking about how various materials are applicable to help us with radiation.”

NASA has said that its aim is to get humans to Mars by the mid 2030s. Working with U.S. companies and international partners, NASA will push the boundaries of human exploration forward to the Moon and on to Mars, NASA stated on its website, adding that it is working to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon within the next decade to uncover new scientific discoveries and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.

In terms of design, Trotti, a native of Argentina, explained that a “new generation of 3D knits” in a Spiderman-like motif, will cover the legs and the arms to facilitate comfort and elasticity for the knees.  Dainese, he said, is at the forefront of protecting performance athletes from high-impact falls, and producing protective gear like airbags and jackets that protect the organs and the head.  One of the biggest challenges, though, is the temperatures on the Moon.  “On one side, an astronaut can be facing the sun at 200 degrees fahrenheit on the front, and on the back, negative 250 degrees fahrenheit.  Imagine a garment that can protect against that?” Trotti told NOWFASHION.

Ultimately, further synergies may arise between the fashion and textiles industries and NASA's technology as time goes on.

“Prototyping these things and making them operational is a big task. My students have gone out to Nike and Adidas… It would be great to work with companies like that… Fashion would be great [to work with] as well, because it goes both ways. Fashion is working on sustainability and there’s technology that fashion also might be interested in,” Newman said, noting that her other project, earthdna.org is utilizing Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to enhance understanding of the Earth’s vitals, the effects of climate change, in order to accelerate positive change for the global sustainability revolution.

Photo Credits:
Professor Dava Newman, MIT: Inventor, Science and Engineering
Guillermo Trotti, A.I.A., Trotti and Associates, Inc. (Cambridge, MA): Design
Dainese (Vicenza, Italy): Fabrication
Douglas Sonders: Photography

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