By  on August 3, 2007

After more than 40 years, the cumbersome 300-pound space suit worn by astronauts is getting an overhaul from a team led by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor.

More Spider-Man than John Glenn, the sleek, spandex and nylon BioSuit is designed for improved mobility and relies on mechanical counterpressure. For the past seven years, Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, has been refining her creation with a colleague, lecturer Jeffrey Hoffman, a former space shuttle astronaut who walked in space, as well as students and the design firm Trotti & Associates. Their lightweight, skintight suit could be ready in time for a Mars expedition — possibly in 10 years.

Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut to shield him or her from the vacuum of space, the BioSuit has mechanical counterpressure, which requires wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The challenge is to make the suit beyond snug without restricting movement. Over the past four decades, space suits have gotten progressively heavier because of multiple layers, a life support system and the gas pressurization.

About 70 to 80 percent of the energy that wearers expend is from trying to bend their suits, according to MIT researchers. While the Michelin Man-type version is manageable in a micro-gravity environment such as a space walk outside the International Space Station, a more mobile style is better-suited for journeys to the moon or Mars, Newman said. There is also the possibility of using a variation of the technology for athletic training or helping injured individuals to learn how to walk. Newman's designs is supposed to help astronauts maintain fitness levels during a six-month journey to Mars. As things are, space travelers typically lose up to 40 percent of their muscle strength.

In addition, if an existing space suit is punctured by a miniscule meteorite or another object, the wearer is faced with life-threatening decompression. One of BioSuit's advantages would be that a hole could be wrapped, similar to a bandage.

Newman is not alone in her pursuit of refining space-related fashion. Philippe Starck is designing space suits for travelers on Virgin Galactic, a company owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, which will undertake private suborbital space travel.

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