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Gravity-loading skinsuit tackles astronauts' health problem
22
Oct '09
An RMIT University alumnus is working on a range of next-generation spacesuits for NASA and other space agencies to use on missions to the Moon and Mars.

Dr James Waldie's gravity-loading skinsuit tackles a significant health problem faced by astronauts – extreme bone loss – by mimicking the effect of gravity on the skeletal system.

Dr Waldie, a Postdoctoral Scholar at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, developed the concept for the skinsuit while studying at RMIT, where he obtained his PhD in 2005.

“On Earth, our bones are strong to support and move our body mass, but in space astronauts float around without any weight or loading,” he said.

“Their bodies adapt by allowing their bones to weaken at an alarming rate – it's like an extreme version of osteoporosis.

“The gravity-loading skinsuit replicates the normal forces of standing on Earth, so it makes the body think it needs to be strong even in the weightlessness of space.”

Dr Waldie, whose research is co-sponsored by the European Space Agency, recently flew on a zero-gravity aircraft to test the comfort, mobility and material properties of his suit.

Following the successful tests, five-time shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman, who is currently seconded to MIT from NASA, said the innovative skinsuit “could be a tremendous breakthrough in solving one of the fundamental problems of long-duration spaceflight”.

In research that bridges science fiction with reality, Dr Waldie is also working on skinsuits for spacewalks on Mars. He has studied the physiological aspects of the suits in vacuum chambers and looked at their mobility advantages by conducting simulated spacewalking tasks in the Australian outback with the Mars Society of Australia.

“The current spacesuits are big body-shaped balloons – they let you take a bit of the atmosphere around with you when you go for a spacewalk,” Dr Waldie said. “They are a marvel of engineering but because they're an inflatable they become bulky and rigid in space. Future explorers of Mars will require safe, light and flexible suits for years of use, which are a significant improvement over the bulky Apollo suits. Skinsuits may be able to offer that technological leap.”

RMIT University

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