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This suit is made for walking (on Mars)

By Samir S. PatelContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2005

In 1972, when humans last visited the surface of the moon, the bulky, stiff legs of spacesuits made the "moonwalk" more of a swaying hop. Since then, manned missions to space have stayed in Earth orbit, where astronauts mostly use their arms to get around. But when explorers get back to the moon, or if they ever get to Mars, these old spacesuits aren't going to cut it, scientists say.

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Both destinations, in fact, are in NASA's long-range plans. Last month, the agency announced an ambitious plan to return to the moon by 2018 as a launching pad for a mission to Mars. If they pull it off, astronauts will need added mobility and dexterity for the next stage of modern experiments, exploration, and construction.

"We need to design some pretty revolutionary spacesuits if we're really going to realize human exploration of other [planetary] bodies," says Dava Newman, a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By combining an old idea with the latest technology, Dr. Newman and her team are trying to build a better spacesuit: the BioSuit, a form-fitting "second skin," designed for lunar and Martian living.

The proposed BioSuit will consist of a skintight body suit, a hard torso and backpack for life-support systems and equipment, and a domed helmet. The conceptual images for the project look like science fiction: sleek, color-coded spacemen and spacewomen climbing Martian windmills, whacking red rocks with hammers, and casually shaking hands.

Much of the technology needed to make the BioSuit practical may be decades away - just like a Mars mission - but the idea behind it was dreamed up decades ago.

A primary function of a spacesuit, and the central thrust of BioSuit research, is to maintain air pressure, or the force exerted on the human body by the weight of the atmosphere, in the airless vacuum of space or the sparse atmosphere of Mars. "The current spacesuits, they tend to be gas bags," says Bob Cassanova, director of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), which funded the research. "They're gas-pressurized, very bulky, very heavy, very cumbersome."

In the late 1960s, Paul Webb, a former Air Force physician, tried to create a spacesuit that used mechanical counterpressure - squeezing - instead of gas pressure.

Dr. Webb made a suit of six layers of elastic that physically pressed the body to mimic Earth's air pressure. The design was lighter and less bulky and provided greater range of motion than a "gas bag." Webb tested the suit and its physiological effects and wrote a report in 1971 that said the idea was viable and safe. But NASA didn't bite.

"When the money ran out, NASA said 'thanks a lot,' " says Webb, who still consults on spacesuit development. "Everything went into hibernation."

Thirty years later, Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, took up the challenge. "I think it was a great idea, just before its time because we didn't have the materials technology," she says.

Newman received a $500,000 grant from NIAC to develop ideas that are 10 to 40 years away from reality - well beyond NASA's usual funding horizon.

Newman's team has made several lower-leg prototypes, including one of nylon-spandex, one of elastic wrapped like bandage, and another of pressurized foam painted with layers of urethane.