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Chapter 16: “Lab Rat and Astronaut!”
April 2006

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JSC2006-E-15539 -- Clayton AndersonImage at left: Astronaut Clayton Anderson remains still during a three hour process in which a set of laser beams is shot at his body. Image credit: NASA

I was recently fitted for a fine new suit. It was a simple, straightforward procedure that required me to strip down to my underwear, don some spandex and get shot at with a set of laser beams for 3 hours! Yep, you guessed it. I was being fitted for a new spacesuit! Man…I sure hope it fits!

NASA is utilizing this new laser technology as a means to gather data of an astronaut’s physical measurements. Through the creation of an ever-growing database, scientists and engineers will begin to analyze these data in the hopes of determining what kinds of general body shapes, heights, arm lengths, hand sizes and so on, are prevalent among those selected to fly in space. This, in turn, will allow them to better design and develop new space suits; space suits that will provide more uniform fit, increased comfort and functionality. It is these spacesuits that should help carry us on to the moon and Mars. It is hoped that these suits will be more “universal” in that they can be worn for launches and landings as well as for working on a planet’s surface or performing a spacewalk. Suits such as these will not exhibit some of the characteristics seen in the early days of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle Programs. Rather, they will forgo the traditionally bulky, stiff, heavy and task-specific designs in order to create something that is more flexible, lighter weight and easier to maneuver and work in. Imagine having to work an eight- to 10-hour day, five days a week on the surface of Mars while wearing a heavy, stiff and bulky spacesuit. Even though the Martian gravity is 1/3 that of Earth, our spacesuits that we use today for spacewalks would still weigh around 100-200 pounds!

JSC2006-E-15537 -- Clayton AndersonImage at right: Astronaut Clayton Anderson remains still during a three hour process in which a set of laser beams is shot at his body. Image credit: NASA

I found my tailoring session to be quite interesting. In fact, I was a highly qualified subject because all I had to do was stand, sit, turn around and put my hands and feet where they told me to! One of the neatest aspects (to me) was that this technology is similar to that used by movie-making studios throughout the country. As a matter of fact, the same types of techniques were used to create a highly popular character from a recently successful movie trilogy. You remember, the “gentleman” with dual personalities, a fetish for eating raw fish and an insatiable desire to locate a small piece of gold jewelry. The human actor donned a full-body spandex suit, laced with sensors and “tracking points” and proceeded to perform his various physical activities and stunts while being captured by digital movie cameras. Later, through the use of high-tech computers, his normal “human” form was transformed into our scrawny, follicle-challenged protagonist! Pretty cool stuff, I must say.

JSC2006-E-15535 -- An AVI  file of computer-processed results of a scanningImage at left: An Audio Video Interleaved file of computer-processed results of a scanning session in which lasers are fired at a subject in order to match the body to a space suit. Image credit: NASA

As I reflected back on my personal data collection session, I drew parallels to the football uniforms worn today by professional athletes and those used in the early days of the sport. What may have even started out as an afterthought: “Hey, maybe if we pad our legs, knees, shoulders and heads we won’t hurt ourselves so much when we play this game…,” has evolved into the high-tech plastics, fabrics and composites that today reduce athletic injuries by the thousands while still allowing them to achieve incredible levels of performance. Maybe the same will happen for us?!

Gotta go…my suit’s ready!