The futuristic space suit must maintain a pressurized, breathable environment, cushion astronauts from G-forces and impacts, protect them from the chilly cold of outer space and the fiery heat of reentry. It must also be smart.
If NASA, Amazon founder Elon Musk, and other entrepreneurs are going to send people into orbit or onto Mars, they’ll need new designs, materials, and technologies for their suits.
As we push toward the 2040s, where human astronauts are on a trajectory to land on Mars, there’s been talk about what our future spacesuits should look like. While we’ve come a long way from the silvery boxy suits of the past, it won’t be until we get into orbit and eventually to Mars that our suit designs will really evolve.
The real spacesuits of the moment aren’t exactly a thing of beauty, with the exception of the sleeker, more Tron-esque Z-2. This new design was the winner of a NASA-sponsored design challenge and is currently being 3-D printed to fit actual astronauts for the upcoming ISS and Martian missions. The new suit will be more comfortable, lighter, and offer more mobility than the older models. It also has a more modern look and is designed to be more versatile than other types of spacesuits. The design includes features that make it easy for astronauts to enter the suit, which is worn over a jumpsuit, from the back. They’ll first put on the feet and arms, then insert their head and close up the suit from behind.
Other designers are working to bridge the gap between reality and fiction, including the crew of the USS Discovery who starred in the Star Trek reboot. While Michael Burnham’s thruster-pack-propelled away mission through the asteroids isn’t likely to take place anytime soon, the technology that powers her pearly white suit—from the heads-up helmet display to the auto-navigation systems and auto-docking foot restraints—is right on track to become a reality well before then.
In addition to the aesthetic considerations, there are a lot of engineering challenges that need to be solved. For example, the inflated suits used by humans in space are vulnerable to pressure loss in the event of a leak or other problem. They’re also susceptible to cold, which can make the material brittle or even crack if it doesn’t warm up fast enough.
Researchers are working on solutions that may help to prevent these problems. For instance, they’re developing inflatable cells that can morph into different shapes and are looking for ways to apply electroactive polymers to the outer layer of the suit that constrict as they’re electrified, similar to how muscles work on Earth. This actuation technology may be an alternative to powering rigid robotic elements in the suits.
Spacesuits have been a key component of mankind’s progress into outer space, from the first manned spacecraft flights to landing on the Moon to building a continuous presence in orbit with the International Space Station. But they’re not without their limitations. New technologies and designs promise that futuristic spacesuits can be even more functional. Spacesuits are an example of the old adage that “form follows function.” On the surface, they look simple, but beneath that layer lies a complex system that carries astronauts through the harsh environment of space.
In addition to sustaining the loads from pressurization, the fabric of a spacesuit must also withstand stresses imposed on it by its wearer. For example, when an astronaut extends a leg, the suit must bend with it to prevent the leg from falling off the side of the craft. This type of movement can generate hundreds of pounds of stress on the suit’s interior surfaces. Other examples include the inertial loads that can be transmitted through foot restraints if an astronaut grabs onto objects while in microgravity or the thermal loading that occurs when a spacesuit is exposed to solar heating.
The traditional spacesuit tries to balance these multiple requirements by using a wide range of mobility joints and bearings. The result is a bulky, cumbersome garment that can be difficult to maneuver. This can be a problem, especially during a long spacewalk when an astronaut may spend hours extending and repositioning their arms and legs to work on various objects.
A much more effective design for future spacesuits has been developed by Stanford University professor Jennifer Lewis. Her BioSuit eliminates the need for a large backpack containing life support systems by using a form-fitting suit that applies pressure directly to the wearer’s skin. She says the suit also has smart features that can communicate with a spacecraft’s sensors to maintain proper temperatures and atmospheric pressure.
For instance, the suit’s sensors can detect a loss of airflow to the lungs and warn the astronaut to return to the spacecraft. They can also monitor the suit’s temperature, battery level and oxygen usage to provide data on the suit’s health. This information can help keep astronauts safe on a long mission.
In the future, astronauts will likely be able to move around their spacesuits with almost the same range of motion as they do on Earth. The new designs and materials are already making progress towards this goal. For example, self-healing materials are being developed that can seal a hole in seconds without the need for power or action by the crew. And the next generation of textiles and polymeric coatings are improving the suit’s ability to resist flex fatigue, increasing its life span.
It will also be possible for astronauts to adjust the fit of their suits using a variety of mechanisms, including elastic bands and straps. Engineers are currently working on ways to make these systems more user-friendly and less prone to malfunction. For example, a simple adjustment of one of the bands could allow an astronaut to tighten or loosen their helmet visor with a simple movement of the head.
The spacesuits used by astronauts will also be lighter and more comfortable. The current design, which has been in use since the Apollo era, has become quite bulky over time as engineers work to improve the wearer’s mobility and comfort. New technologies are helping reduce the bulk and weight of the suits, and the space agency is experimenting with a range of different fabrics to increase durability.
Spacesuits will also be lighter and more flexible, thanks to new materials like a stretchable material that hugs the body as it moves. The new fabric, a form-fitting, breathable textile that was developed by MIT researchers, is being tested in prototype spacesuits. Other improvements include better insulation, and a way to reduce the amount of air needed in the suit for ventilation.
Another exciting development in spacesuit technology is a smart exoskeleton designed to help astronauts move more easily and with greater strength. However, this will be a while off and won’t be available for everyday astronauts to use until the technology is ready for mass production.
The futuristic spacesuits seen on Discovery might have a few things to catch up to, but they are a good start. They are sleeker and less clunky than their predecessors, and they feature LED lights that astronauts can use to identify each other, because everyone looks the same in a spacesuit.
Today’s spacesuits are a marvel of engineering, allowing astronauts to walk around and move their arms in space, just like they do on Earth. But they’re still not ready to sustain human life beyond low Earth orbit or planetary bodies. To do that, the suits will need to be much smarter.
For decades, scientists have been developing soft robotic technology that could make future “SmartSuits” for planetary exploration safer, more comfortable and energy efficient for astronauts. Engineers at Texas A&M are working on a softer version of this technology to create an intelligent, skin-like suit that could help keep astronauts healthy and safe while they explore the Moon or Mars.
A futuristic spacesuit might also incorporate powered exoskeletons, which could give the wearer superhuman strength to perform heavy construction or simply reduce fatigue. Some pioneering work has already been done in this area using inflatable cells and electroactive polymers that constrict like muscles when electrified.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled a prototype for such a suit in 2017, and a dummy wearing the suit has since been aboard a Falcon Heavy test flight and the company’s Demo-1 unmanned Crew Dragon spacecraft. The prototype was designed to withstand double the vacuum pressure of outer space, and it has been fitted with emergency life support, which can supply astronauts with up to 90 minutes of oxygen if their suit loses pressure.
The prototype also has a number of other safety features, including self-sealing limbs that tourniquet any damaged areas of the suit to keep them pressurized and alive until they can be repaired or the astronaut can return to their spacecraft. This is similar to a technique described in Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope and more recently in his novel The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, in which the characters use their spacesuits to heal themselves.
The suit’s skin-like texture could also be used to gather information about the surrounding environment and its inhabitants. It would be able to detect things like airborne dust particles, temperature and humidity, and the presence of any chemical oxidants or microbes. This data would be stored on the suit, which astronauts could access with mobile apps or voice commands. The goal is for the suits to be able to inform decisions and recommendations about avoiding dangers, such as by identifying microbes or estimating the likelihood of a collision with a rock.