One of the best motivators to solve a problem is to experience it yourself. Dr. Bonnie Dunbar happened to have just such an experience. She is a former NASA astronaut and is now a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M. While she was in the astronaut corps, she realized that some of her fellow astronauts couldn’t fit in an Extra Vehicular Activity suit – more commonly known as a spacesuit. So she decided not only to create one for the individuals with the original problem but to create a process by which any other astronaut launched on any future mission can have a spacesuit tailored to their own specific body. And now, her former employer (NASA) is funding her and her lab to complete a feasibility study of this customization process as part of the recently announced NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
Dr. Dunbar’s submission, known as “The Spacesuit Digital Thread,” received $175,000 to fund the research over the next nine months. It doesn’t actually utilize high-tech digitized thread to create spacesuits. Instead, it utilizes the “Digital Thread” framework commonly used in the industrial internet of things settings. The best way to describe the “Digital Thread” is to think of it as a piece of data that connects an individual part through all the design, manufacturing, and delivery processes.
Get enough of these pieces of data to describe an individual object, and you end up with what is called a “digital twin” – a representation of the object in a digital space. Digital twins can then reproduce the object ad infinitium if necessary. But they can also be used to tweak and individualize the item based on the inputs on specific characteristics.
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That seems to be the path that Dr. Dunbar and her team are going down. While she was an astronaut, Dr. Dunbar noticed a significant shortfall of spacesuits for the astronaut core during the shuttle period – only 18 suits were manufactured for 200 astronauts. Not all of the astronauts could fit in those suits, and many suffered from problems using them, including lost fingernails and a significant loss of strength. What’s more – many are still in use today, over 40 years after they were initially designed.
But there is an alternative – during the Apollo era, each space suit was explicitly tailored to the individual for whom it was intended. They had no such problems, with Apollo 17 astronauts saying they were happy with how their suits functioned. The problem is – there weren’t too many Apollo astronauts, now hundreds of people, including civilian tourists, are planning to go to space. It would be prohibitively expensive to fit them all with customer suits, even with the exorbitant price tags some space tourists are willing to pay for their flight to orbit.
Enter Dr. Dunbar’s “digital thread” idea. Creating a digital twin of a generic space suit would allow designers to take measurements specific to a user and alter that digital twin to create a custom-fitted suit without the massive expense of creating one from scratch. To that end, Dr. Dunbar’s previous research focused on finding the metrics that would be necessary to customize a spacesuit. Her research lab utilized a full 3D body scanner to create a complete digital twin of an individual, including their range of motion. That information could then be input to the digital twin of the spacesuit, allowing quick customization.
Having a specially designed digital twin is excellent, but spacesuits aren’t useful unless they are physical objects. So what would be the process of actually making one of these tailored suits? That seems beyond the scope of this Phase I grant, though the proposal hints that in situ repairs and fabrication of parts could be in the offing. Most likely, that would require a type of 3D printer, particularly one that could recycle previously made spacesuit parts. No such technology exists – yet. Maybe, if Dr. Dunbar’s research is successful, it could crop up in the next round of NIAC funding.
NASA – The Spacesuit Digital Thread: 4.0 Manufacture of Custom High Performance Spacesuits for the Exploration of Mars
Hall et al. – Range of Motion (ROM) Analysis for Pressure Garments (EVA and LES) using 3D Photogrammetric Motion Capture
The Atlantic – The Original Sin of NASA Space Suits
NPR – When It Comes to the Spacewalk, Size Matters
Artist conception of the “Spacesuit DIgital Thread”
Credit – Bonnie Dunbar