Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Meet Dava Newman, the World’s Universe’s Leading Space Fashion Designer

Women who are smaller than about 5'5" can’t go on spacewalks, according to aerospace engineering professor Dava Newman, who herself is too small. That’s because the bulky pressurized space suits built for leaving spacecraft start at size medium. (Talk about a role model problem, if small women don’t even get a shot!)

Photo: Marla Aufmuth MIT professor Dava Newman (at right) shows off a prototype skintight space suit

(Also, I checked, and Sandra Bullock is 5'7", so in this case Hollywood didn’t lie.)

That limitation was part of the motivation for a 15-year research odyssey Newman has undertaken to design a bio-suit that would fit close to the body and allow astronauts of all sizes to be more agile in space, research funded at first by NASA and now by a string of academic research grants.

A big appeal of her work is that Newman is essentially a fashion designer for astronauts, and that’s why she spoke at the TED Women conference in San Francisco this week, showing off a skintight bio-suit prototype that makes space look super hot.

“We make them for females because I’m in charge,” she said in an offstage interview.

And it’s not just about people of slighter stature. Today’s bulky spacesuits have a terrible track record of causing shoulder injuries for astronauts of various sizes.

Newman’s team has made an enormous breakthrough in recent months, she said, by incorporating active materials — specifically nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys.

Newman’s longtime goal has been to design a suit with the pressure of 30 percent of the atmosphere, or 29.7 kilopascals.

“We can get to 20 percent with shrink wrap,” she said.

The ability to pressurize close to the skin comes from mathematical calculations about how tension lines can be laid out on the suit that do not become overextended and break when a person moves. As an added benefit, sensors can be safely placed on the lines. Newman calls this “elegant math.”

Recent tests with active materials — which cinch up when you apply electricity — have proven to be more than effective, Newman said. Her team expects to soon publish papers on the latest research. “We’re now beyond what we need, 50 to 60 kilopascals,” Newman said.

So will these be used by astronauts anytime soon? Unlikely, Newman said.

“Our dream is to invent the world’s coolest space suit for Mars,” she said. “But NASA won’t be sending humans to Mars for two decades, so we have time.”

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus