Space suits: Looking to the future may not produce emotions of euphoria at the moment, but NASA is about to announce the winner of a competition that promises a better future, although not on this planet.
Today’s astronauts are still using space suits that were developed for America’s first visits to the moon, albeit upgraded. They are bulky, difficult to work in and, as an astronaut with 300 days on the International Space Station, Kate Rubins, described it: “It’s a bit like doing car repairs while wearing stiff oven gloves and standing on a skate board”.
In a way, today’s space suits are worse than the ones used by Neil Armstrong: They have a mass that is almost a third more. That may not seem like a problem but, when working in orbit, there is virtually no gravity and every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Spacewalkers today have to think far more carefully about the consequences of their actions and movements than moonwalkers do: The Moon may have a sixth of the Earth’s gravity but, at least, it has some gravity.
NASA has spent $420 million and 14 years developing new space suits but a spokesman, Paul Martin, the agency’s Inspector General, recently stated that even with the doubling of that budget, a new space suits would not be ready for NASA’s return to the Moon in 2025. They have therefore privatized their efforts, and the winner of the competition will be announced next month.
The idea is to produce space suits that can be used in orbit and on the Moon. As one agency head said, they want to avoid rigid designs that had Apollo Moonwalkers “hopping around like bunnies and falling over”.
The concept of the new space suits is that people wearing them can “reach up”, “bend down” or even do push-ups (as long as there is some gravity…..otherwise they could only do one!). One version of the new space suits designed for the lunar surface would allow astronauts to hike 10km: The special boots would be linked to a “breadcrumb-trail” display on its face shield to show the occupant where he/she had been….and thus, crucially, how to get back home.
I can think of many people who could use such a system here on Earth….and I am getting to the age where I might be one of them!
All sorts of innovative ideas appear to be out there, including the radical idea that the work achieved by space walks could be more efficiently conducted by robots, not human beings.
The future of space travel is exciting, and the practical discussions of exactly how it is conducted brings it closer to everyday reality.
As an interesting footnote to this blog on space, the U.S. recently banned the testing of anti-satellite missiles. China, India and Russia have conducted such tests but the U.S. Vice-President, in announcing the U.S. ban said, “These tests are dangerous and we will not conduct them”. Her words reflected the growing concern about space junk and the dangerous effects of its collision with the International Space Station, satellites and human spacewalks. One errant piece of junk is one thing, 100,000 pieces of a piece junk – the result of blowing it up –is quite another. Yes, 100,000 pieces will burn up on re-entry faster and easier than the whole thing, but it will create far more dangers in orbit itself.
One thing Kamala Harris did not say, but I am sure is of equal, if not greater concern, is Russia and China using the systems they are developing to blow up Western communications and military satellites. I sincerely doubt those countries are developing their systems for altruistic reasons of just clearing space junk.