Creator of MIT ‘BioSuit’ takes leading role at NASA

Photo: Douglas Sonders
Photo: Douglas Sonders

We have liftoff: Dava Newman, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at MIT and the developer of the streamlined BioSuit, has been confirmed by the US Senate for the number two spot at NASA. Newman is the third woman to hold the title of deputy administrator, and she replaces Lori Garver, who left the post in September 2013. President Obama needs to simply sign off on the appointment to make it official.

Newman, who has been on the faculty of MIT since 1993, it best known for her work on the BioSuit, a sleek, streamlined, “second-skin” spacesuit design. While we’re accustomed to watching astronauts float weightlessly outside their crafts, current spacesuit designs are actually incredibly bulky and hard to maneuver in. Also, there have been incidents where astronauts almost drowned because of water flooding into their helmets.

In a story written for NASA’s Ask Magazine in 2012, Newman explained the issues with current spacesuit design:

The greatest problem with these suits is their rigidity. The air that supplies the necessary pressure to the bodies of wearers turns them into stiff balloons that make movement difficult and tiring. These suits are officially known as EMUs—extravehicular mobility units—but they allow only limited mobility. Astronauts who perform repair work in space find the stiffness of spacesuit gloves especially challenging: imagine manipulating tools and small parts for hours wearing gas-filled gloves that fight against the flexing of your fingers.

The BioSuit, in contrast, looks and fits a bit like a yoga suit and uses nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys developed at MIT which expand and contract around a wearer’s body. And while it has not yet been tested in space, it has been tested in Boston: “We have been working with colleagues at Children’s Hospital in Boston, Harvard’s Wyss Institute, Boston University, and Draper Laboratory to see if we can use our technology and engineering designs to help infants with brain damage that affects motor skills, children with cerebral palsy, and stroke victims, who typically lose motor skills on one side of their bodies,” Newman wrote in her piece.

It’s unclear whether Newman’s BioSuit designs will factor into her new role at NASA — she’ll be providing leadership, policy and planning direction — though NASA administrator Charles Bolden cited her design experience as he lauded her accomplishments.

“Dr. Newman brings with her valuable experience at the nexus among engineering, science and space policy. For more than a decade she’s directed the Technology and Policy program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” Bolden said in a statement. “I think I speak for the entire NASA Family when I say we couldn’t be more excited to welcome Dr. Newman to our team.”

“It’s an enormous honor to serve at NASA in times when our country is extending humanity’s reach into space while strengthening American leadership here on Earth,” Newman said in a statement. “I’m profoundly grateful to President Obama, the United States Senate, and Administrator Bolden — along with everyone at MIT. I can’t wait to come aboard.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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