The spacesuit of today is much the same as the one of the last few decades. It’s an incredibly complicated device, combining all the systems necessary to keep an astronaut alive in the vacuum of space into a wearable package. However it’s not the easiest thing to use, often requiring extensive training not only to get familiar with it but also to train your muscles in how to use it. This is mostly because the design, which makes even the slimmest astronaut look something like the Michelin Man, is centred on ensuring that the pressure on the astronaut’s body is kept constant. This is currently done using an inflated lining which is quite restrictive however future designs, like the one from MIT, could provide the same protection whilst giving astronauts far more freedom.
Our bodies are accustomed to 1 atmosphere of pressure which, on the grand scheme of things, really isn’t that much. Indeed the difference between what we’d consider normal pressure and a complete vacuum is about the same as going 10m under water, something SCUBA divers do on a regular basis. However the trick is ensuring that that pressure stays consistent and constant over your entire body which is what led to the spacesuits today. Interestingly though it doesn’t matter how that pressure is generated so the traditional method can easily be replaced with something that’s mechanical in nature, which is what the new BioSuit from MIT seeks to do.
Instead of covering the astronaut’s body in what amounts to dozens of inflated pillows the BioSuit instead looks to use Shape Memory Alloys (think nitinol wire, if you’ve ever played with it) to provide the pressure. Essentially they’d have a full body tourniquet that would be embedded with this wire and, upon heating, it would contract around the astronaut’s body, providing the required pressure. How that pressure would be maintained is still a problem they’re working out (as keeping the astronaut heating constantly isn’t exactly ideal) but seem to be making good progress with various clip designs that would keep the suit tight over the duration of a spacewalk. They’d still have to have the traditional fish bowl on the head however as employing a system like this on the head wouldn’t really be feasible.
Whilst a suit like this wouldn’t provide complete freedom of movement (think a wetsuit that feels like it’s a size too small) it would be a vast improvement over the current design. Right now every time an astronaut wants to move a part of their body they essentially have to compress the protective bubble of gas in their suit, something which ends up being extremely tiring over the course of a long duration spacewalk. A design like this would likely require far less energy to manipulate whilst also allowing them to move a lot more freely, significantly reducing the time they’d need to spend outside.
For me though it’s just yet another piece of sci-fi making its way into reality as we’ve long dreamed of spacesuits that would be like a second skin to its wearers. Better still it’s being made with technology that we have available to us today and so no exotic material sciences is required to bring it to fruition. We likely won’t see any astronauts wearing them any time soon (the cycles for these things are on the order of decades) but as time goes on I think it’ll be inevitable that we’ll move to suits like this, just because of the vast number of advantages they offer.