Aoife Hardesty talks to Dava Newman and Gui Trotti, two of the greatest minds paving the way for the future of space exploration.
Since the dawn of the human race, mankind has looked up at the night sky and wondered ‘what’s out there?’ The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the constellations and wove them into their myths of warring gods. The native Americans’ creation story is based on the movements of the sky. The past few hundred years brought with them the birth of a new age, an age of science and deeper understanding of the cosmos, the universe, and our place in it. With this greater understanding, mankind started to dream of flying from Earth into the unknown, of walking on distant planets, floating amongst the stars.
We tend to separate science and imagination into hard facts, and whimsical daydreams, but without the merger of the two, space exploration would never have begun. A certain amount of fantastical thinking is needed to imagine that humans could actually leave planet Earth, a great feat of science and engineering.
For Dava Newman and Gui Trotti, they are continuing mankind’s legacy of dreaming of the heavens, and are at the forefront of discovering new ways to better prepare humans for long-term residency in space. In a recent talk as part of Space Week in UCD, they recounted their experiences of their past decades at NASA and hopes for the future of space travel.
Newman is a former Deputy Administrator of NASA, and currently the Apollo Program Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT. Like so many others of her generation, the historic moon landing of 1969 had a profound effect on her. “I was a little girl at the time, and I watched the moon landing [and it] taught me to think big, go to moons and explore.”
“Trotti has possibly the best job title in the world: he is a space architect.”
Newman met her husband, Gui Trotti, when she “convinced him to run the space architecture department” of the International Space University which she was forming at the time. Trotti laughs and says, “she basically hired me.”
Trotti has possibly the best job title in the world: he is a space architect. He has designed the new South Pole Research station and has worked on designs for lunar bases and the international space station.
From Argentina, Trotti travelled to the USA to “study architecture and ended up landing in Houston in 1969, the year of the moon landing.” Trotti’s university was roughly “30 miles away from the space centre” so he started visiting the centre “and getting more involved and fascinated by the idea of being able to design and going into space.”
“If exposed to the vacuum of space, the fluid within our bodies would almost immediately start to boil. Boiling bodily fluids would prove to be rather a hindrance to anyone attempting space exploration.”
Newman and Trotti work together, and separately, to prepare humans better for life in space and for space travel. Together they have been designing a ‘BioSuit,’ a sleek, futuristic looking spacesuit which is designed to keep air pressure consistent across the body. Space is literally just that: space. Millions and millions of kilometres of empty space, absolute nothingness, not even air.
Spacesuits need to be able to provide a coating of air pressure for human bodies. If exposed to the vacuum of space, the fluid within our bodies would almost immediately start to boil. Boiling bodily fluids would prove to be rather a hindrance to anyone attempting space exploration.
When we picture astronauts, we imagine the large white, somewhat marshmallow-like spacesuits, the BioSuit is the opposite.
The design of the BioSuit sets it apart from the typical inflatable-style suits, using an elliptical patterning across the fabric to aid the spread and maintenance of air pressure. Their hopes are that the suit will be suited to long journeys through space, and to help protect the body against the adverse effects of microgravity.
The couple designed the suit on the adventure of a lifetime which Trotti describes as his “greatest achievement.” Together, they sailed around the world. They would spend weeks bobbing along in the vast oceans of the world thinking about space, and the vastness of the cosmos. It was on this adventure that the idea for the BioSuit took hold. After weeks designing and drawing up plans, they pulled into port and submitted the design for a patent, before hopping back on their boat to continue their journey.
“By pushing bodies to the limits in the most extreme conditions on Earth, more understanding can be gained of the perils and potential dangers of life in outer space.”
In planning how best to combat the harsh conditions of space, space travel, and eventual living on other planets, researchers use simulations, environments on Earth which mimic conditions in space. Dava describes a project “in Hawaii, climbing around volcanoes, that’s a simulation for Mars… We simulate it, and we get real science out of it” from rovers on the planet. “We go to Antarctica and do the exploration studies,” and by pushing bodies to the limits in the most extreme conditions on Earth, more understanding can be gained of the perils and potential dangers of life in outer space.
We have been designed for living on Earth. Away from Earth, gravity decreases. Astronauts on the International Space Station live in microgravity. Without the force of Earth’s gravity, bone density and muscle strength decrease. Newman describes studying these problems on Earth. To simulate microgravity, space agencies use aeroplanes to “get [microgravity] for a short time. That’s not a simulation, that’s true microgravity.”
To achieve microgravity aeroplanes fly in a parabolic flight path which is essentially flying up and down at 45 degree angles so that they aeroplane flies along the path of an imaginary upside down ‘U.’ At the very top of the hump, the people and objects inside the plan are in free fall, and for those few moments of freefall, that is microgravity.
To understand the effects of microgravity on bone deterioration or loss of muscle mass, Newman says “we do bed rest studies” as the periods of microgravity achieved in the aeroplanes “last only for 20 to 30 seconds.” Astronauts can be living in microgravity for months at a time on the International Space Station, and future space travel will take months so there is a clear need to know and understand microgravity to keep astronauts safe and healthy during space exploration.
“Did you know that screws reverse thread themselves in microgravity? No one ever told me that!”
Pushing the boundaries of designing equipment for space is no easy task and Newman says that “as an engineer, [you fail] a lot.” A design might seem like it works “but we try to have a zero-gravity mindset… When we flew on the parabolic flight, we really learned about our design and our instrumentation and it didn’t work. Did you know that screws reverse thread themselves in microgravity? No one ever told me that! That wasn’t in a design reference, and I learned it flying on that aeroplane. We had nuts and things flying everywhere!”
Newman and Trotti are working extensively on spacesuits, they describe a suit that was being tried out on the International Space Station the day we were speaking, which is designed “not to keep someone alive outside the craft, it’s for when you’re inside. You can put a compression suit on and it looks like a leotard.” The idea is that the suit recompresses the spine and is used in parallel with exercise. “You grow a couple centimeters in space and a lot of people get back pain, so we recompress you.” Upon querying if a trip to outer space would add a few centimeters to a person’s height, Trotti explains “You come back the same shape, all that’s happening is you’re elongating. You’re not really growing.”
Furthering the limits of space exploration is however not their only focus; for Newman and Trott, conquering the far reaches of the solar system and beyond is useless if we do not first heal our damaged home planet.
In their talk in UCD, Newman speaks about using data collected by NASA to monitor climate change. With impressive graphs and simulations, she shows the scientific evidence that climate change is real, that it is happening now, and that humans are one of its largest contributors.
“Newman was appointed Deputy Administrator of NASA by the Obama administration, and stepped down from her position following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.”
In the current political climate, the voices of science are being drowned out and ignored too often. Newman and Trotti believe that the key to saving the planet lies in education.
Newman was appointed Deputy Administrator of NASA by the Obama administration, and stepped down from her position following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The Trump presidency was “part of what triggered [that decision]. It’s not really about the government anymore, but about putting the power in the people, by really strengthening our voices and creating educated voices.” Newman stresses the need to make science “open for everyone. We need everyone, it’s about excellence. These are such hard problems to talk about, especially the climate and the Earth, that we need all the brains out there.”
During the Obama administration “we had more investment in science than ever, that’s the good news. Now it’s in a bit of our own hands.”
“The top priority right now is regenerating the Earth. Mars will always be there, but the Earth might not if we don’t take care of it first.”
To fight against climate change, the couple agree that the battle is going to be up to individual states. “We need people to be proactive on this, and the states are going to be very proactive on this. Despite leadership in Washington, there is a lot of people and there is a lot to do, so we’re not going to slow down.”
What do they want to see accomplished in their lifetime? Immediately Newman says “people on mars,” but Trotti wants to see people on the moon “I’d be happy if I could see that again.” Newman is quiet for a moment before saying “the top priority right now is regenerating the Earth.” Trotti agrees: “Mars will always be there, but the Earth might not if we don’t take care of it first.