Testing Spacesuit Material

Boeing and Let’s Talk Science
Readability
6.25

How does this align with my curriculum?

Learn about a new material for spacesuits and the engineer who designed it.

Testing Spacesuit Material

What astronauts wear inside a spacecraft is pretty much what you and I wear on Earth, only cooler! But what they wear outside the spacecraft is a different story. When outside a spacecraft, astronauts face many hazards. These include dust, radiation and the lack of a breathable atmosphere. So to protect spacewalkers, specialized materials must be used for space suits.

Kavya Manyapu and SPIcDER 

One such material was developed recently by Boeing engineer Kavya Manyapu. Kavya's curiosity about space started at a young age. Her father told her fascinating stories about the Apollo astronauts. He also helped her find answers to her many questions about space. This passion for space led Kavya to become a Flight Crew Operations and Test engineer at Boeing.

At Boeing, Kavya focuses on developing the CST-100 Starliner. This spacecraft is scheduled to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Kavya is the Starliner Spacesuit Lead. This means that she designs and tests the launch and entry spacesuits for the crew.

Kavya beside test spacesuit arm
Kavya Manyapu working on the Boeing Starliner spacesuit (Source: Boeing Company / Kavya Manyapu).

 

Kavya was so passionate about spacesuits that she wanted to do research about them. At the University of North Dakota, she had the chance to meet Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean. One of the things they talked about were the problems that lunar dust poses for astronauts. Bean found that Moon dust collected in the fibres of his spacesuit. This made the suit stiff and could limit his movement. This was a problem that Kavya thought she could solve.

Did you know?

Lunar dust is sharp! It can poke holes in spacesuits which cause dangerous leaks.

Kavya wanted to develop a material that would keep dust out of spacesuits. This would allow astronauts to move around more freely. The technology she developed is called SPIcDER (pronounced "spider"). SPIcDER stands for Spacesuit Integrated carbon nanotube Dust Ejection/Removal system. As the name suggestions, the new material uses carbon nanotubes to help keep out dust.

Did you know?

Carbon nanotubes are molecules shaped like cylinders. Each cylinder is made of a single layer of carbon atoms.

Missing media item.

NASA had already developed a shield that could repel dust that is used on solar panels. It is called the Electrodynamic Dust Shield. It works by creating an electric field. Since the space dust has an electric charge, the shield could repel the particles. But the shield did not work well on flexible surfaces. This was the challenge for Kavya.

Kavya found a way to embed the nanotube fibers into the outermost layer of the spacesuit fabric. The fibers acted as electrodes. When electricity was supplied to the fibers, the electric field would push off the dust.

Diagram showing parts of the SPIcDER system
Image showing how electric current through carbon nanotubes moves charged dust particles (©2021 Let’s Talk Science). 

 

Before the fabric could be tested in space, it needed to be tested on Earth. These included tests of the strength and flexibility of the new material. It also included tests of space-like conditions, such as being in the vacuum of space. It was even tested on a working spacesuit knee-joint.

Testing SPIcDER 

But the most exciting part of testing was yet to come. A spacesuit sample using SPIcDER was one of five selected by NASA for testing. It would go to the ISS as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE)-11 mission. 

Samples of the material were launched on April 15, 2019 aboard a Cygnus spacecraft. Cygnus is a consumable cargo spacecraft. It transports supplies to the ISS.

Cygnus spacecraft being held by Canadarm
Canadarm2 robotic arm reaches out to grab the Cygnus spacecraft in 2019 (Source: NASA).

Two five-centimeter-by-five-centimeter samples of SPIcDER were attached to a platform outside the ISS. They have remained in place ever since. Every day they experience the harsh conditions of space. This includes huge temperature changescosmic rays, space dust, and no atmosphere. In other words, all the things that a spacesuit faces during a mission.

Spacesuit and test spacesuit fabric samples
Left: Boeing engineer Kavya Manyapu works with a prototype spacesuit. Right:The set of experimental materials that was launched to the ISS (Source: Boeing).

But why did the samples need to be out there so long? Spacesuit designers hope to have their suits used for as long as possible. Spacesuits will likely remain outside a spacecraft even when astronauts are inside. Or when the astronauts have returned to Earth. That's a long time! It is also thought that the material could be used for building space habitats.

After their stay on ISS, the samples will be returned to Earth. Here they will be examined to find out if the material has a future protecting astronauts. But until then, Kavya can only hope that the samples are doing okay.

To the Moon and Beyond

This new spacesuit material could not come at a better time. NASA is currently planning for its upcoming Moon missions. They plan to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis program. These missions will send astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

Did you know?

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

And how does Kavya feel about all this? “It’s an opportunity to take that one small step along the path of human spaceflight,” she said. “It’s a dream come true. Now I can dream about one day wearing a suit of this material on the Moon myself.”

Let’s Talk Science appreciates the work and contributions of Boeing Defense, Space & Security in the development of this Backgrounder.

 

Boeing
Boeing corporate logo

About Boeing Defense, Space & Security

The world's second-largest defense company, Defense, Space & Security is the only aerospace business offering products and capabilities allowing its customers to meet mission requirements from the sea bed to outer space. It serves a diverse customer base, but its portfolio is focused in six key market areas: Commercial Derivatives, Military Rotorcraft, Human Space Exploration, Satellites, Autonomous Systems and Services.

 

Learn more

For These Engineers, Starliner’s Crew Is Top Priority (2019)

Learn more about Kavya Manyapu and her career.

We Martians podcast, Episode 86 (2020)

Kavya Manyapu, a spacesuit engineer on Boeing’s Starliner program, joins Jake to talk about equitable design, and the challenges and payoffs of pursuing it.

New Spacesuit Unveiled for Starliner Astronauts (2017)

Learn about the features of the Starliner spacesuit.

NASA Artemis Program

Keep up to date with all of the news for NASA’s Moon program Artemis.