Clemson forum may help decide design of future space suits

November 03, 1999

Scientists will gather at Clemson Nov. 9-10 to discuss the advanced materials and technologies required to build the next-generation space suits needed for NASA's Mars mission in 2006 or other future missions. Between 50 and 75 scientists are expected to attend the two-day forum, sponsored by Clemson's bioengineering department and the Clemson Apparel Research Center.

The forum, at Clemson's Clyde Madren Continuing Education and Conference Center, will include opening and closing remarks by NASA astronaut Gregory Harbaugh.

"Extravehicular Activity Technology - A Leap into the Future" is designed to encourage interactive sessions with a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers from industry, government and academia, according to Harbaugh, whose job duties include overseeing spacewalk requirements for shuttle-based missions.

"Clemson was chosen as the host site because NASA wanted to get broad cross-disciplinary input on potential problems and the technologies that might be useful to solve them," said R. Larry Dooley, who chairs Clemson's highly regarded bioengineering department.

"We want to make sure all design issues are addressed and assessed so that we can develop a 'technology roadmap' that will help NASA determine if the necessary technology is developed to the point of flight readiness," Dooley said.

This unique interdisciplinary workshop is a result of collaboration between NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, who received an honorary degree from Clemson in 1990, and Dooley, himself a nationally-known researcher.

Another factor that won Clemson hosting rights was its expertise in materials and fabrication technologies through Clemson Apparel Research Center and the university1s School of Textiles, Fiber and Polymer Science. Projects with potential aeronautic applications include a custom garment-fitting technology that uses 3-D whole body scans.

All that - and more - may be needed for the voyage to the Red Planet. The complexity of travel to Mars is unequaled in the annals of science and technology. The initial flight itself will take three years, with astronauts expected to stay on the planet1s surface for up to 500 days.

"We're going to have to have materials that can be repaired and regenerated," said Dooley. "It's not like you can bring it back and fix it."

For example, the Mars suits will be in constant use during planet exploration, requiring them to be of unusually durable material that will withstand sharp edge abrasions, punctures, dust adhesion and even ultra-violet effects. And unlike the moon, Mars has an atmosphere and gravity, which means the suits can't simply be updated versions of what has been used on previous missions to the moon.

Gravity will also subject the astronauts to a greater potential for fatigue, which means that suits must be far lighter and more ergonomic than the 200-pound-plus behemoths used in the Apollo moon missions.

Astronauts will likely require more robotic assistance than in past missions, so the suits will have to function as part of a system with those machines. A key challenge will be the construction and design of rovers and robotic assistants, which are reliable, durable and of seamless interaction with the astronaut.
-end-


Clemson University

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