4 mins read 02 Jul 2020

Human Aerospace Designing Next Gen Spacesuits

Local company Human Aerospace has teamed up with RMIT to design spacesuits that mitigate the negative health effects of weightlessness.

Dr. James Waldie, founder of Human Aerospace, poses with NASA spacesuits. Credit: Human Aerospace.

Earlier this year, Human Aerospace was announced as one of ten companies that were successful in receiving a share of \$11 million in grants from the Australian Space Agency’s ‘Expand Capability Grant’. The South Australian company has outlined plans to use their \$844,000 grant to design and test next generation spacesuits in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). 

The purpose and design of these special suits is to negate some of the side effects from weightlessness that astronauts commonly experience during and after their time in space. The company has announced that two of the suits will be developed as advanced prototypes, and one as a concept design, with the development positioning Australia among global leaders in compression spacesuit technology. 

Professor Rajiv Padhye, Director of RMIT’s Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion, expressed enthusiasm for his team to contribute their expertise in design and testing this technology at their state-of-the-art facility. 

“This is an exciting opportunity to show our cross-disciplinary teamwork in design and technology and to partner with the best in the world on designing suits that will have real impact on people’s health,” Padhye said.

The Effects of Space on the Human Body

The weightlessness that astronauts experience while in space takes a huge toll on the body. Astronauts grow up to 7 centimetres taller while in space as their spines lengthen in this new environment, which can lead to pain during their mission and increased risk of slipped disks once they return back to Earth. Studies also show that astronauts lose muscle mass and up to 2% of their bone mass for each month that they remain in space. A skinsuit, such as that being designed by Human Aerospace, can negate these effects to ensure the comfort and safety of astronauts throughout their mission. 

Dr. James Waldie, the Director and Chief Engineer at Human Aerospace, commented on the importance of spacesuit design. “Bone loss is a particular challenge - it’s like an extreme version of osteoporosis... your hips bones could age by 50 years over a Mars mission,” he said. 

Traditionally, astronauts have attempted to minimise this impact by using exercise machines for approximately 2 hours a day. However, this requires bulky and heavy machinery which is not feasible for longer future missions. The skinsuits from Human Aerospace would replace the need for such strenuous exercise. 

Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, tests a prototype of a Human Aerospace suit aboard the ISS in 2015. Credit: European Space Agency.

“We’re prototyping a suit that keeps them in shape just by wearing it,” said Dr. Waldie. “Being very light elastic and requiring no power, it also allows astronauts to continue working when in use, so is well suited to extended missions.”

The Human Aerospace skinsuits would mitigate health side effects of weightlessness, such as bone and muscle loss, by imposing an Earth-like longitudinal loading on the torso and lower body. In essence, this means that the elastic suit would apply compression force along the direction of the spine, preventing it from lengthening during weightlessness and mimicking the effects of gravity.

Another issue comes into play when astronauts return to Earth after their mission. When in a weightless environment blood pressure throughout the body equalises, however this changes once astronauts return to Earth’s gravity. This change can cause astronauts to faint from what is known as orthostatic intolerance. Human Aerospace aims to address this issue with another skinsuit, which will be developed into an advanced prototype because of their new grant. 

Potential for Student Involvement

RMIT’s Brunswick Campus where much of the testing and design for Human Aerospace will take place. Credit: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

As part of this endeavour, two Master’s students will be recruited to work on this project with Human Aerospace. Professor Padhye commented, “Such exciting and prestigious roles as this don’t come around very often...So, we’re urging any talented students with expertise in material or textile science and engineering, or computer modelling of computer systems to apply.” 

In helping design and test these skinsuits with Human Aerospace, students would contribute to establishing Australia as a leader in spacesuit technology. As Dr. Padhye said,  “You might end up designing the suit worn by the first woman on the Moon for the 2024 Artemis mission, or the suits worn by the first people to reach Mars.” 

In partnering with Human Aerospace, RMIT joins Cape Bionics, Central Queensland University, and TSL as local partners. International collaborators include NASA, the European Space Agency, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.