These Boots Are Made For Walking
How will future space suits differ from the current ones? Well, for one thing, the boots will be made for walking. Astronauts who wear space suits for extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) don't walk. They hover and float, or their feet are placed into foot restraints so they don't drift away. In the future, however, astronauts may go to Mars as part of NASA's new vision. And they'll need very different boots to walk on the planet's surface or drive a rover.
Space suits are designed for the atmosphere in which they're used, says Amy Ross, advanced EVA engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ross and her associates have been hard at work designing the next generation of space suits, for use on Mars and beyond.
Current space suits are designed for the near-zero-gravity environment of space outside the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. The suits can bend at the knees, rotate at the waist and have a hard upper torso made of fiberglass. On a planet like Mars, where astronauts would be more active, greater maneuverability is essential.
A better way to ensure mobility is to put bearings and joints in the suits. Today's space suits are mostly made of fabric, with a few metal bearings and joints in the arms and waist. Some of the new designs add hip, thigh, and ankle bearings for flexibility.
The demands placed on a suit in deeper space would be very different from what astronauts experience in low-Earth orbit. Astronauts on Mars would face being hit by orbital debris and greater exposure to radiation. The fabrics used must be able to withstand those conditions.
NASA researchers must find ways to simulate a Mars expedition to know if a space suit will do the job on the red planet. Some tests take place in the Arizona deserts, where researchers take pressurized space suits and try to carry out the activities that might be performed on Mars. They use a refurbished lunar rover to travel around the countryside, since they expect Mars missions to also use some sort of vehicle.
Astronauts on Mars may not need to carry all of their tools on their bodies. Currently, astronauts have mini-workstations attached to their chest area. On Mars, astronauts may store their equipment on a rover, and might even have a robotic assistant to bring them what they need.
Helmets for use on Mars might also be different. Unlike the current oblong-shaped helmet bubbles, advanced conceptualized suit helmets are nearly hemispherical, or half globes. If a scratch impairs the astronaut's vision, the bubble can be rotated to provide clearer viewing. Ross says another option is to cover the clear bubble of the helmet with a sticker-type protective coating. If it gets scratched, astronauts can peel off the coating and apply a new layer.
Because there are so many unknown factors about a trip to Mars, it's difficult to accurately plan what work clothes astronauts will need to wear. "If you have all the specifics, it's easy to create a workable plan," says Ross. "But when you aren't sure of the variables, it's a much greater challenge."
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A Place For Everything
Washington - Feb 20, 2004
Do you know exactly where everything in your house is? If you're like most people, you probably don't. With all that stuff in all that space, it's pretty hard to keep track of everything.