Big Ideas: Space Odyssey

NASA's astronaut spacesuits are a remnant of the 1970s and much in need of a technological update. That's why NASA Glenn Research Center's Scott Bleisath and his team are helping build a new suit that can take us back to the moon and on to Mars.

All his life, Scott Bleisath wanted to work with astronauts. A teen in Bay Village when the first space shuttle flights launched, he visualized his career with uncanny accuracy.

Since joining NASA at 19 as a co-op student, Bleisath has taught astronauts to spacewalk in a giant pool in Texas. He's manned the Johnson Space Center's extravehicular activities desk, talking astronauts through their forays outside the space shuttles and the International Space Station.

"I spent a lot of time at Mission Control, probably the best days of my career," Bleisath says.

Yet even then, Bleisath saw another way he could help the space program. As he read astronauts long instructions for assembling the space station, and watched them toil in space for hours, moving their arms slowly and stiffly, he imagined an easier way. He wanted to help build a better spacesuit.

Now, Bleisath is back in Cleveland, working as the lead engineer on NASA Glenn Research Center's Power, Avionics and Software program, creating the electronics for the spacesuit's next generation. "This is the thing I've been wanting to do my whole career," he says.

American astronauts badly need the makeover, too. They wear a 1970s suit. It's a relic — too hot, too bulky, too big in the chest. They carry basic work instructions in flip charts attached to their forearms. Mission Control has to read them directions for more complex tasks by radio. As they work, their old suits limit their movements. They have to work around the big life-support packs on their chests, which rely on levers, valves, switches and other manual controls.

When future astronauts leave Earth orbit someday, they're going to need a new outfit, whether it's to return to the moon, visit an asteroid or travel to Mars or its moons. Engineers in Houston are designing a suit that allows for additional mobility and a more advanced life-support system. Bleisath and his team at NASA Glenn are designing the suit's gadgets.

"When we're going out into the solar system and exploring, we're going to be going to areas where there will be a communication time lag [to] Mission Control," Bleisath explains. Our next explorers will have to work more autonomously than today's orbit-bound astronauts.

Bleisath's team is working to make that possible. A spacesuit model in their lab shows off the latest prototype gadgets. A little computer is attached to a backpack, a high-definition camera is perched on the shoulder and a small screen is strapped to the suit's left cuff. "We live in the age of smartphones and apps," Bleisath says. "We're kind of making apps for an astronaut."

The cuff display is designed like an astronaut smartphone. Its apps, still in development, will include a navigation system built for other worlds, text messages from Mission Control and checklists for space-walking and moonwalking tasks. Bleisath's engineers have rounds of research and development ahead of them, and unlike Apple and Samsung, they've got to build a device that resists radiation, lunar dust and space temperatures near absolute zero.

But already, astronauts have tested the cuff displays and cameras, playing geologists on fake Mars missions in the Arizona desert.

"The astronaut hits the record button, holds the rock up in front of the camera, describes it, describes where he found the rock," says Bleisath. "It's kind of like a tricorder from Star Trek. You're talking, it's recording all your observations." Meanwhile, the navigation system marks the location and the computer time-stamps the note.

As a possible alternative to the cuff device, Bleisath and his team are testing helmet displays. One prototype projects a tiny green screen image, about an inch wide, onto a lens. Held inches from the eye, the image seems to float in the distance — an effect common in new optical technology, such as Google Glass spectacles, says engineer Mike Lewis, a member of Bleisath's team.

But the NASA engineers have a special challenge. Astronauts don't want anything attached to their head while wearing the new helmets. They want to be liberated from the headwrap they wear today, nicknamed the "Snoopy cap." They don't want anything that can fall off, since they can't reach inside their helmets to adjust it. So the NASA Glenn team is working on displays and audio systems attached to the helmet itself.

This year, the Glenn team is delivering its first product to the suit developers in Houston, a computerized control box for the new suit's life-support system. Next comes the challenge of integrating their systems — getting all their gadgets to work together.

If all goes well, the first new suits could be loaded onto a Russian resupply spacecraft for testing on the International Space Station around 2017 or 2018. They may arrive just in time. NASA and its international partners are talking about extending the space station's mission beyond 2020. But NASA is running out of space suits, Bleisath says. It only has a handful more ready to go. "The suit itself is getting pretty old," he adds. "We can't buy replacement parts for them."

So Bleisath's work could make space station astronauts' spacewalks easier within a few years. And if future astronauts are sent to explore Mars or an asteroid, they'll have the right outfit for that mission too.

"We want this spacesuit to be flexible, modular," says Bleisath. "We may not carry all this stuff with us on each one of those missions, but we can plug and play as we need to."

Share this story: