Beyond the Hill

Rhode Island School of Design students create a spacesuit for NASA astronauts heading to Mars

Courtesy of RISD/Jo Sittenfeld

Andrzej Stewart, the chief engineering officer on the Mars simulation mission that ended this past August, suits up in the newly-designed spacesuit.

Students at the Rhode Island School of Design have teamed up with NASA to design a spacesuit for a future endeavor to Mars.

The redesigned suit is significantly more flexible and weighs less than a standard spacesuit, said Sheyna Gifford, crew physician on the NASA HI-SEAS IV mission to a simulation of Mars.

“It’s a complete redesign of the suit for a new environment, but it still has to provide the protection that the space suits did,” Gifford said. “It’s all the protection with extra features at two-thirds less weight.”

The redesign is not actually a spacesuit. The suit is an analog suit that doesn’t seal a person in like an actual spacesuit does, Gifford said. Analog suits and spacesuits are similar in that they protect from radiation, low air pressure and freezing temperatures, but are different in their purposes. The analog suit is designed to feel like a real spacesuit on Mars for the people on simulated Mars, not trying to protect people from space, Gifford said.

RISD’s analog suit is different from other analog suits in that it resembles the suit NASA is testing to send to Mars, rather than the standard Apollo space suit, with the round helmet and puffy arms that were made for the moon, Gifford said.

The lightness and flexibility of the redesigned suit is necessary to complete a Mars mission, Gifford said. An astronaut would need to be able to lift and bend to climb rocks and hills and to be able to use tools, like shovels, with ease.

“Wearing the analog suit, or the Mars suit, is like wearing a spaceship,” Gifford said. “You have to have all the tech, but you also have to have all the wearableness.”

Instead of having a standard hard upper part and a soft lower part, the Mars suit has both a hard upper and lower part, said Gifford. A standard soft suit in current use can go in and out of the International Space Station as the wearer pleases.

With this, the mobility the suit has in and out of the space station can bring in dust and contaminants from Mars into the station and earthly contaminants onto Mars. The new design is made to be left in the airlock onboard the space station; it docks into the airlock and the wearer is able to leave through the back of the suit and enter the space station without tracking in any contaminants, Gifford said.

RISD graduate students Erica Kim and Kasia Matlak worked on the suit. Kim is a dual major in industrial design and apparel design, which to Gifford made all the difference.

“They were able to add the wearable aspect to the industrial design of the spacesuit,” Gifford said.

This is not the first time RISD has worked with NASA. Gifford has done work on spacesuits since 1997, when she was a leader in her design class at the University of California, Berkeley in 1997.

Gifford called herself “a catalyst” in the partnership with RISD and NASA.

Students at RISD can even take an industrial design class where they can design a part of a Mars mission, Gifford said. Gifford has presided over the judging of the student-designed medical bays for a rocket going to Mars. The school participates is the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge every year, Gifford said.

Designing the suit was simply an extension of the curriculum RISD students have already worked on, Gifford said.

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