This week, NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts leaders and research fellows met in Seattle to review some of those crazy ideas: skin-tight spray-on spacesuits for a trip to Mars … static-electricity fields that would protect future lunar bases from space radiation … even a lunar lab that could develop microbes for terraforming Mars.
NIAC is managed for NASA by the Universities Space Research Association, and relies upon a peer-review process for selecting grant recipients. The research projects go through two phases: In the first round, proposals receive up to $75,000 for a six-month study. The most viable of those projects go on to Phase 2, where they receive as much as $400,000 for two years of study.
The spray-on spacesuit is part of a Phase 2 study on new mobility technologies for future astronauts. Project leader Dava Newman, an aerospace engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that NASA’s 300-pound (136-kilogram) spacewalk suit may be fine for working in weightlessness, but just won’t do for walking around Mars.
Her research group has been looking at the possibility of spraying a layer of polymer fabric over an astronaut, in a booth much like those used for getting a spray-on suntan. The “second-skin” suit could be augmented by temperature-control underwear, flexible joint attachments and perhaps even an exoskeleton.
Such a spacesuit could require decades to develop, but a partial payoff may come more quickly. For example, Newman said her NASA-funded research into exoskeletons could be incorporated into better prosthetic limbs here on Earth in the next year or two.