An innovative space suit designed to mimic the effects of gravity on the human body to prevent muscle wastage and bone loss has been tested in space for the first time.
During his ten-day mission at the International Space Station in September, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen has been wearing the SkinSuit, which places gradually increasing pressure on the body along the vertical axes, simulating the load normally felt on Earth.
The suit, designed by aerospace engineer James Waldie from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, has been modelled on a skin suit worn by athlete Cathy Freeman during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“Given the impact of atrophy on astronauts in space, I wondered if a suit like the one worn by Freeman could fool the body into thinking it was on the ground rather than in space and therefore stay healthy,” Waldie said.
When not obliged to fight against gravity as it has to on Earth, the human body in space rapidly deteriorates. According to studies, astronauts lose up to 20 per cent of their muscle mass in only five to 11 days in space. In addition to that, their bone density decreases by two per cent every month and their spine, not held in place by the weight of the body, could stretch by up to seven centimetres, resulting in an increased risk of disc herniation.
It is this last side-effect that has been the number one condition targeted by the SkinSuit in the experiment overseen by the European Space Agency (Esa).
“We believe if we can reduce spinal elongation in space, we can reduce the stress on the intervertebral discs,” said Waldie. “This should help with pain in-flight and the chances of slipped discs post-flight.”
Made of bi-directional elastics, the suit took over 15 years to develop. Waldie worked on the project together with scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kings College London and the European Space Agency.
“Seeing live video of Andreas wearing SkinSuit on board the ISS was thrilling. I felt an enormous sense of achievement that my concept was finally in orbit,” Waldie remarked.
“It was really exciting but also very humbling, as there are so many people that have dedicated so much effort to this success. To share their passion, and see it all come to fruition, has been amazing.”
Manufactured by Italian motorbike leathers maker Dainese, the suit had to be thoroughly tested in ground-based trials as well as parabolic flights before receiving the ‘fit for space’ stamp.