Walking on the moon. Installing new equipment on the outside of the International Space Station. Exploring the surface of an asteroid. Taking a first step onto Martian soil. No matter where astronauts may go in space, one thing remains constant: astronauts need spacesuits to protect them from extreme environments.
Spacesuits perform many functions in addition to providing life-sustaining oxygen and the proper pressurization. They serve as almost a mini spaceship built for one. The suits must offer reliable technology to enable communications between the astronaut, the ground crew at Mission Control and the other astronauts inside the spacecraft. They also must help astronauts successfully complete their tasks and carry out their missions.
NASA's current spacesuits are effective, but a new spacesuit is being designed that will implement cutting-edge technology to revolutionize the spacesuit, and greatly increase the tools available to astronauts performing space walks. NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is managing the development of the new spacesuit. Johnson is developing the Portable Life Support Subsystem (PLSS) and the Pressure Garment Subsystem (PGS), and is partnering with NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on the Power Avionics and Software (PAS) of the new spacesuit.
A key component of the Glenn-managed Power Avionics and Software (PAS) for the new spacesuit is the Extravehicular Activity Information System (EVAIS).
"The Extravehicular Information System (EVAIS) provides a suite of electronic applications on the spacesuit that promotes crew efficiency and autonomy," says Scott Bleisath, the Extravehicular Activities (EVA) and Power, Avionics and Software (PAS) lead systems engineer at Glenn.
When astronauts currently perform space walks (another term for Extravehicular Activities), they rely heavily on communications from Mission Control and a set of highly scripted, exacting set of procedures and timelines. The delay in communication sent back and forth between Earth and the International Space Station is not unduly large. But as astronauts venture further into the solar system and further away from Earth, there might be a significant delay in communications that could prove problematic.
"The goal of the EVAIS system is to give astronauts the flexibility to manage their activities themselves, autonomously," Bleisath says. "That way, they don't have to rely on communications from Earth."
Extravehicular Information System
"EVAIS consists of four components: a display on a cuff, a processor in a backpack, a high-definition camera mounted right above the shoulder, and a headset," says Richard Slywczak, the EVA Power, Avionics and Software (PAS) project manager.
The Cuff Display
The cuff display is installed on the wrist of the spacesuit. Weighing less than a pound, the cuff includes a full-color screen and dust-tolerant buttons. The buttons on the cuff are carefully designed so that a gloved hand can operate them accurately. Each button serves as a menu button that controls the specially designed software—the button functionality is customized to each screen.
For current space walks on the space station, a crewmember inside the station reads a printed set of instructions to the crewmember who is doing the space walk. The EVAIS system will store all of this information, making it readily accessible to the astronaut during his or her space walk. The astronaut can access checklists, protocols, photographs, diagrams, maps and more on the cuff, making the system interactive and efficient.
"It's kind of like an iPhone with a bunch of apps, but it's for a spacesuit," Bleisath says.
The EVAIS is like a phone in more ways than its applications. The EVAIS team is testing the feasibility of text messaging via the cuff. Using new technology, Mission Control could communicate with crewmembers by text message, using NASA's Deep Space Communication Network. These text messages would complement the traditional radio communications, and could be stored on the EVAIS so that the astronaut can review the message when it's most convenient and refer back to the message as needed.
Certain components of the EVAIS, including the camera and the processor, are installed on or in the backpack of the spacesuit. The processor was designed by Glenn.
"The processor is a computer with specialized software that goes in the backpack," Slywczak says. "It is small—about the size of a paperback book or a wireless modem."
The processor contains all of the maps and other information that feeds to the cuff display. It also stores all of the audio and visual recordings captured by the camera and headset. The processor manages all data going into the system and coming out of the system.
The Camera and the Headset
Current spacesuits have cameras mounted above the helmet. The EVAIS system includes installing a camera on the shoulder of the suit that would record what the astronaut sees.
"When astronauts are out exploring, they are doing field geology work. They want to capture and record high-def video and still pictures of the rocks and samples that they find," Bleisath says.
NASA arranged for several engineers to attend field geology training to increase their understanding of what the equipment needs to accomplish. They learned that geologists frequently speak their notes into a tape recorder. NASA took this method a step further, developing a model called a crew field note.
To create a crew field note, the astronaut would pick up the sample, such as a rock, and hold it in front of the camera. The astronaut could see what was being recorded on the cuff display, to ensure an accurate recording. Then the astronaut would speak, noting where the sample was found and describing it, which would be recorded. The headset would record this audio transmission, and the cuff will control the recording. Both the audio and visual recordings would be stored in the processor in the backpack.
Once the astronaut returns to the spacecraft, the spacesuit is attached to a computer to download its recorded information. This data is then processed and sent to Earth for review.
"The main benefit is that the science teams could review this information overnight and could plan the next day's activities," Bleisath says. "Rather than going through hours and hours of recorded video, these are encapsulated field notes of the important things. It's concise, and the location and time are recorded, which can be put on a map of the traversed area."
The HD camera would capture specific items of interest, allowing researchers to map unfamiliar terrain and learn about the surface of moons, asteroids and even other planets. It also has the capability to transmit a steady feed in real-time, like a web cam.
Every year, NASA hosts an event called Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS). In the dry, dusty terrain of the desert in Arizona, teams from NASA centers bring technology, robotic systems and extravehicular equipment to be tested. The harsh desert environment, from the terrain to the temperature swings, serves as a simulation of terrains in space.
Glenn sends teams to Desert RATS each year to test and refine their technologies through field experimentation. The EVAIS team has participated in the last two Desert RATS.
At this year's Desert RATS, the EVAIS team tested all of their current projects, along with other technologies they are helping mature. These technologies include headsets with custom fit earpieces, molded to fit each person perfectly. The team is also exploring a heads-up display, or helmet display, that would display information inside the helmet in a hands-free way.
"It's like in "Iron Man," "Aliens," "Terminator"—all those sci-fi movies. It's just like that," Bleisath says.
Geologists and engineers work together to field test the equipment, giving the teams invaluable insight into how to refine the technology and equipment. Feedback from Desert RATS participants profoundly influences the technology that will be part of the finalized spacesuit.
Exploring the Future
The technology being developed for the next spacesuit will be applicable to most conceivable missions. Whether the mission calls for an astronaut to be outside of the space station or servicing a satellite; existing in geosynchronous orbit or lunar orbit; or exploring lunar surfaces, asteroids, Mars and beyond, these technologies for the new suit will be up to the job.
"Whenever NASA sends humans beyond Earth orbit, there will be a spacesuit required. EVAIS will be a part of it," Bleisath says.
-Tori Woods, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center