This engineer's 'Spider-Man' inspired tech could help protect future moon walkers

Without atmosphere, moon dust presents challenge for spacesuit design

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

A photo taken during Apollo 17, the final mission of the Apollo program, shows one dirty spacesuit. (Image: NASA)

HOUSTON - Apollo-era photos taken by the small class of moonwalking astronauts are surreal, showing the balloon-like suits and gleaming helmets walking on the lunar surface -- but then you look closer. Why are those white suits caked in moon dust?

During the Apollo program, scientists learned that because the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere the moon dust posed a problem for the 1960s extravehicular spacesuits designed for the moon.

After the final Apollo mission, one of the astronauts had a small hole near the boot of his spacesuit because of the harsh moon debris he encountered during a moonwalk, said Dr. Kavya Manyapu, flight crew operations test engineer with Boeing’s Starliner program.

“If you look back at Apollo astronauts and of them doing the spacewalks on the moon you actually notice the iconic white space suit looks really gray,” Manyapu said. “That's because once we went to the moon we realized that dust was such a big problem because there's no atmosphere on the moon and the dust there is very sharp and abrasive and it actually sticks to anything that comes into contact.”

The last time NASA had suits with enough hip mobility to allow a person to walk around was during the Apollo era but while NASA spacesuit technology is at a stalemate, research in the field has continued to progress outside the agency.

[STORY: NASA needs new spacesuits, here's what's being done about it]

Manyapu, who specializes in future planetary spacesuits, is developing and testing a technology that would help keep those suits clean on the moon and eventually Mars.

Inspired by superheros and "Star Trek" Manyapu said when she started thinking about how best to protect astronauts in extreme planetary enviroments she wanted them to have superhero-like suits.

“I want to push a button and the dust just goes poof,” Manyapu said.

She even nicknamed her technology, the "Spider-Man" suit, because it uses charged Carbon nanotubes to repel the dust on the spacesuits the material looks almost like spider webs.

“When you actually look at the suit itself and how it's going to be made it almost looks kind of like a spider's web on the top and hence I named it Spider-Man,” Manyapu said.

If NASA plans to return humans to the moon for long-duration missions Manyapu said the astronauts will require more durable materials to work and live in.

“We need to come up with the technology that can self-sustain the suits and help the astronauts be more productive and we're able to achieve our science goals,” Manyapu said.

In April, Manyapu's spacesuit material technology launched to the International Space Station where it is currently undergoing testing in space.

At left, Boeing engineer Kavya Manyapu works with a prototype spacesuit during her research on a new material that will better shield astronauts from dust, radiation and other hazards. The set of experimental materials at right was launched…

Planetary spacesuits are only part of the equation when it comes to human space exploration. Astronauts also require a different suit for launch and reentry that keep them safe back to Earth should the spacecraft depressurize. 

Outside of her research in planetary spacesuit technology, Manyapu is also the spacesuit integration lead for the Boeing CST-00 Starliner spacesuit.

The "Boeing Blue" spacesuits for launch and reentry look a world away from the orange "pumpkin" suits NASA astronauts wore during the space shuttle program. However, both were designed by David Clark Co.

Boeing

Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson wears the Starliner spacesuit from Boeing and David Clark.

The suit has a soft helmet, or hoodie, versus a hard helmet. The boots, made in collaboration with Reebok, are also very light. Overall, the launch and reentry suits are 40 percent lighter than the shuttle suits.

"Our spacesuit here for the Starliner is setting that next paradigm because it's much lighter," Manyapu said. "We have different features that are much more advanced than the previous suits that we've built and hopefully the sets you know that next paradigm for building newer next generation spacesuits in the future."

This story is part of "Florida's Space Race: The Next Step," airing July 16 on WKMG News 6 in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch and moon landing. Visit ClickOrlando.com/moonlanding for more coverage and tune in July 16 for a full day of space-related coverage.

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