Feature

Tailor-Made for Exploration
07.09.07
Many things have changed since the 1960s, especially clothing styles. So if people don't go out today in the same clothes they wore 40 years ago, why should today's astronauts wear 40-year-old space suits to explore other worlds?

A student in a blue space suit pulls a wagon in the desert
More than just clothing styles have changed over the past decades. Space suit technology has come a long way since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Explorers who walk on other worlds in the future will have the benefit of years of further research.

Image to left: A student wears the NDX-1 suit during testing at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Credit: NASA

A group of students from five North Dakota colleges are working on a design for a next-generation space suit. Not only will changes in technology make their suit differ from the ones used the last time humans walked on the moon, there will be another major difference -- this suit is designed for the unique challenges of walking on the red surface of Mars.

Space suits worn on the moon during the Apollo missions made excellent use of the resources that were available at the time. Those resources placed limitations on the suits, which were heavy and bulky and limited mobility. The suit's primary function was to allow astronauts to live and work in an extremely hostile environment; attributes like finesse and grace had to take a back seat.

In addition to the changes in technology, designing space suits for Mars also presents new issues. There are similarities in the suit requirements for both the moon and Mars, but there are several differences between the two worlds. These differences can pose unique requirements for space suits. For example, while gravity on Mars is only about a third of that on Earth, it's roughly double the gravity on the moon. The higher gravity can make a big difference when wearing a space suit like those used on the later Apollo missions, which weighed about 250 pounds on Earth.

A student uses a tool while wearing a beige and black space suit
The students' research is a project of the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, which began the effort with $100,000 in funding awarded by NASA through a Space Grant Workforce Development Competition. The project is a joint effort of students at the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, Dickinson State University, the North Dakota State College of Science, and Turtle Mountain Community College.

Image to right: Wearing the NDX-1 space suit without its blue protective covering, a student uses a sample-gathering tool. Credit: NASA

"This was one of the most innovative and creative proposals that we funded under the competition," said NASA Space Grant manager Diane DeTroye. "The basic premise is that the consortium used the technical project of building a prototype Mars space suit to bring students from academic institutions across the consortium together in an interdisciplinary, virtual, distributed project team -- a perfect microcosm of how a NASA project team operates."

The North Dakota Experimental 1, or NDX-1, suit weighs only 50 pounds (not counting a backpack containing life-support and communications equipment). The suit can be pressurized, and features six layers of protective fabric. The suit also includes a removable blue covering that protects against dust and extreme temperatures. Project officials said that consultant Gary L. Harris made a major contribution to the suit by designing soft fabric joints that improved mobility.

John Polansky, a junior at the University of North Dakota, joined the space suit team in the fall of 2006. He had been interested in finding a research fellowship, and one of his engineering professors pointed him toward the project.

A student wearing the blue NDX-1 space suit walks down stairs in front of the cylindrical habitat module
"The NDX-1 is the first space suit designed specifically for the Martian surface," Polansky said. "Because of its explicit purpose, the suit is lightweight and also maintained at a pressure of 4.5 (pounds per square inch). This gives the astronaut high levels of mobility, crucial for planetary exploration. The helmet provides a wide range of vision, also important to planetary exploration.

Image to left: Testing of the NDX-1 space suit took place around the habitat at the Mars Desert Research Station. Credit: NASA

"Currently, I am testing a liquid-cooling garment that will be incorporated into the NDX-1," he said. "The LCG will be worn by the astronaut underneath the suit, and uses chilled water to remove heat from the astronaut's body. This will allow the suit to be tested in a wider range of exterior temperatures, greatly increasing the available hours and times for testing."

The LCG will be important to future testing of the suit. The NDX-1 has been tested in desert conditions as an analog for the Martian surface. While the terrain is similar to that on the Red Planet, the temperatures in the desert are significantly warmer, and make the suit uncomfortable without the cooling garment.

Related Resources
+ North Dakota Space Grant Consortium

+ University of North Dakota -- Space Suit Laboratory

+ NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program

+ NASA Education Web Site

+ Spaceward Bound

+ Desert Education Feature
Polansky said that he is pleased with the progress that has been made so far on the LCG. "The first test was quite nerve-racking, as a few minutes would determine the result of many, many hours of work,” he said. “I was thrilled to see water flowing successfully through the garment, and in subsequent tests even more thrilled to measure levels of cooling almost identical to my predicted values. More tests are necessary before the LCG can be incorporated into the suit, but that day is in sight. I have had a personal discovery as well -- few things compare to the joy of seeing a design concept come to life successfully. This gives me further proof that I have chosen a career path that I will thoroughly enjoy."

Once he earns his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Polansky said he plans to pursue a master's in either aerospace or aeronautical engineering. "After that, I hope to find work in a space-related field, potentially for NASA," he said.

Implemented by NASA in 1989, the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based Space Grant consortia. These consortia administer projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Through Space Grant and the agency's other college- and university-based projects, NASA continues the agency's tradition of investing in the nation's education programs. The project is directly tied the agency's major education goal of strengthening NASA and the nation's future workforce. Through this and the agency's other college and university efforts, NASA will identify and develop the critical skills and capabilities needed to achieve the Vision for Space Exploration.

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services