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RISD Builds a Mars Suit

RISD/Jo Sittenfeld
RISD professor Michael Lye helps HI-SEAS Chief Engineering Officer Andrzej Stewart with the new Mars suit

One challenge astronauts face as they prepare for a mission to Mars is that they haven’t got a thing to wear.

For example, astronaut Andrzej Stewart had to wear a hazmat suit during his training at the Mars simulation center on Hawaii known as HI-SEAS. That suit just wasn’t realistic.

The problem is, it’s too expensive to build actual Mars space suits just to train on Earth. A fully functional Mars suit would cost millions of dollars to build. Plus, it would be extremely heavy. (Mars has 62 percent lower gravity than the Earth.)

So, earlier this month, Michael Lye at Rhode Island School of Design in Providence unveiled a training suit that he designed with the help of RISD students. It cost $10,000 to build – a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

“We were trying to mimic a Mars suit, or mimic what it feels like, but not actually have all that expense built into it,” the professor and industrial designer told WCAI.

Lye says apparel design students were involved in coming up with the look and cut of the suit, which has an elliptically-shaped helmet.

“The shoulder areas have bearings to allow you to swing your arms around and move them very easily,” he said. “But to get those bearings in, where they’re supposed to be on your body, they have to be pretty close to your neck at the top.”

The classic big, round dome of a helmet had the problem of interfering with those bearings. Their elliptical design avoided that problem.

Lye will visit the HI-SEAS training center in Hawaii next year to help the astronauts learn how to use the suit. He’ll also take their suggestions into account for design changes.

Lye says he already had a good grasp of the physical challenges that astronauts face, but actually putting on his newly-designed space suit gave him a glimpse of the psychological challenges.

“Once you put a suit like this on, it’s very isolating,” he said. “You start to feel separate from the people around you, even if they’re just standing a few feet away.”

That’s a design problem that might be hard to work around. After all, each of these space suits is a bit like its own spaceship. It has everything in it to keep a person alive in a hostile environment.

“The psychology of being in there and feeling like you’re in your own little world is something that was a little surprising to me,” he said. 

Credit RISD/Jo Sittenfeld
RISD students helped to design a new Mars training suit

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