A New Age of Exploration: From Earth to Mars

author: Dava Newman, Engineering Systems Division, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Dec. 6, 2010,   recorded: June 2008,   views: 3134
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Happily for human spaceflight, Dava Newman and her students enjoy working in such laboratories as NASA’s “Vomit Comet.” Newman’s work aims to provide a better understanding of how humans can withstand the rigors of space missions. Her decades studying human physiology and performance in extreme environments may prove key not just to the success of reaching Mars this century, but to improving the quality of life for people disabled by disease or accident on Earth.

Studies of astronauts in flight, training on Earth, and on long engagements at the International Space Station, reveal “significant physiological deconditioning,” Newman says. Microgravity produces musculo-skeletal loss, especially in the vertebrae and leg bones, as bipeds become “more like snakes, using a swimming type of motion.” Muscles also atrophy from 20-30%. It’s possible some of this loss could be restored once on the moon (where people are 1/6th their weight), or on Mars (3/8th their Earth weight). But Newman wants to do something about these conditions before humans reach these destinations.

She’s working on such countermeasures as unique spaceflight exercises, special drugs, human augmentation, next-generation spacesuits, and creating artificial gravity. She shows a nifty, pedal-powered artificial gravity device on which an astronaut spins, to combat deleterious physiological effects. Newman says it takes the brain around 30 days to adapt to zero gravity, and to switch back to Earth gravity. Our astronauts don’t get the hang of being home right away. Says Newman, “The funny thing is when a crew comes back, and they let go of their toothbrush and it just falls down.”

Newman provides a fast history of the spacesuit (including a giant, white spherical ball from the ‘60s and a shrink-wrap version from the '70s), before introducing her bio suit, the result of many experiments, including hanging people from the ceiling, to simulate moon walking. Her outfit comes with a mechanical counter pressure system, and biosensors to maximize mobility and minimize energy consumption. Newman hopes to modify this gear into a smart suit to help children with cerebral palsy achieve more normal locomotion.

What fires Newman up the most is exploration, something she’s passionate about, having circumnavigated the globe on a 1 1/2 year voyage. Mars is within reach --“We’re up to the task” -- but we may have to accept that maybe everyone doesn’t come back alive, says Newman. Yet, “what’s it worth if we can really find evidence for the origins of life three to four billion years ago on Mars. That’s huge!”

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