For 50 years the spacesuit used by American astronauts hasn't changed drastically from the ones used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11. But futuristic spacesuit designs may soon change that.
The Apollo 11 spacesuit, called the A7-L, was a marvel of engineering: It sustained human life outside of Earth, but it also allowed for astronauts to walk around, bend over, move their arms in space and navigate space nearly as well as they did when they were earthbound.
The future of spacesuits will theoretically allow even more motion by using a skintight design, according to MIT researcher and aerospace engineer Dava Newman.
Newman's proposed BioSuit designs use elastic and polymers for stretch and nickel-titanium coils that pressurize the suit when heated. The big breakthrough, she explained at an event in Washington, D.C., is nucleated boron minitubes spun into thread and sewn into these stretchy suits – effectively protecting the human body from space radiation.
As a result, these skintight suits will also allow for humans to walk on the moon – and possibly elsewhere.
An added bonus, Newman pointed out: Since these suits are custom-made, there will be no risk of running out of space suits, as was the case with the all-woman spacewalk that was planned and scrapped in March.
His company's design will be used during missions to and from the International Space Station this year. However, it is only meant to be used in a spacecraft and will only last minutes outside a spacecraft before its wearer faces the risk of death.
An interactive look: The new race to the moon
Challenges in the future
A skintight design is a brilliant idea, Cathy Lewis, space historian and curator of spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., told USA TODAY.
Traditional spacesuits are made of dozens of layers of material, including Mylar, Dacron, Beta Marcasite and Kapton. Because the moon lacks atmosphere, the suit is pressurized with 4.3 square pounds of oxygen per square inch. Pieces of rubber are built into the suit to keep the oxygen in the suit intact.
All in all, it's pretty heavy.
"Astronauts frequently suffer from shoulder and elbow injuries from fighting pressurized suits," Lewis told USA TODAY. "Astronauts, by and large, are middle-aged people who have been athletic all of their lives. That is what has motivated Dr. Newman's work – so that they don't have to be subject to these injuries."
However, there are challenges to abandoning the bulky design, Lewis cautions.
Skintight designs have faced criticism from designers, she said: "The shortcoming and skepticism is always from spacesuit designers is, 'Yes this is fine, but what about cooling, what about protection from radiation?'"
'Accommodate, but not mimic'
Lewis told USA TODAY that current spacesuits that are intended for use outside of a spacecraft are "built to accommodate but not mimic human range of motion" for a reason.
She emphasized that spacesuits, at least the ones you can use to walk the moon with, haven't changed all that much since the space race.
Inquiring minds might wonder why that hasn't happened yet, given the advancements in space technology elsewhere. Lewis said that spacesuit designers are inclined to emphasize safety rather than aesthetics when looking at the future of spacesuit design.
"The changes are iterative, and this is the conservative nature of spacesuit designers," Lewis said. "Because this is a matter of human safety, they're cautious of how they change things."
Whenever spacesuit designers start sourcing the same spacesuit material from a new factory, said Lewis, they have to rebuild an entirely new spacesuit from the "new lot" to ensure its safety.
There's another, crucially important reason for why spacesuit change is seemingly slow.
Spacesuits are modular and not custom-built for each astronaut. As such, Lewis says, they need to fit a wide range of bodies.
Lewis said that the current range of spacesuits fits "everyone from the 5th percentile to the 95th percentile – a woman to who's 5 feet tall to a man who's 6'4"."
"It's not a complete range," she said, but it comes close.
Innovations, past and present
That's not to say that spacesuit designers haven't considered new designs. One of the earliest experiments when designers were weighing options in the 1960s, Lewis said, was a hard suit with joints shaped like cones that would allow for more pressure in the spacesuits. They're nested, and, as a result, would have matched around 97% of the human range of motion.
But this structure, combined with the increased atmosphere in the spacesuit as a result of more pressurization, is more likely to result in blowback in the spacesuit itself.
"Your arm will be thrown back without warning," said Lewis.
Second-skin spacesuits might not make it to a spacewalk anytime soon, but Lewis said that Newman's findings could very well be the future of spacesuit design.
"This concept of nucleated boron tubes ... it's radical and it might just be a new solution. They are things that can protect from radiation, and by limiting the oxygen volume, you don't have to worry about blowback."
"It may not be the next suit, but it will be one of the subsequent suits."
Follow Joshua Bote on Twitter: @joshua_bote
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 50 years after Apollo 11, NASA may use skintight space suit in future