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Dava Newman

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Women may be from Venus but if we ever hope to see men on Mars, we’ll need Dava Newman’s help.

Because it turns out that building a space suit that allows astronauts more than limited mobility is, in fact, rocket science.

Fortunately, Dava is a rocket scientist – or, more accurately, Professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at Boston’s Massachussetts Institute of Technology, as well as director of MIT’s Technology and Policy program. And she’s determined that by the time we’re ready to send men to Mars, they’ll be able to move around a whole lot easier than current spacesuit design allows.

Laypersons tend not to think too much about spacesuit design when we think about space missions – the attention is all on the magnificent fire-breathing spacecraft that still seem like something out of sci-fi.

But spacesuit design, it turns out, is at the heart of successful manned missions. Not only do the suits – currently equipped with pressurised gas – keep astronauts alive by providing breathable oxygen and control body temperatures, they are designed to keep internal pressure stable and aid mobility, a significant challenge thanks to the weight, size and pressure of the suit.

Yet, current spacesuit design, for all its effectiveness, has more than a few challenges – for one, its weight and bulk. Conventional spacesuits, of the sort worn by Armstrong and Aldrin, weigh about 135 kilos and limit movement to short, clumsy bursts.

Dava is determined to change that – and with the BioSuit, she’s on the verge of transforming the way astronauts move and function forever. A lightweight, skintight bodysuit that is, incredibly, also stylish, the BioSuit is a gamechanger in more ways than immediately evident. It will in fact expand the entire scope of what astronauts can achieve through their missions – allowing them extensive mobility and a host of movements we take for granted, the ability to bend, kneel, dig, walk, lift the way we do on earth. The implications are also significant here on earth: these experiments in mobility and engineering have profound implications for those affected by cerebral palsy.

But developing the BioSuit has meant developing whole new paradigms – new fabrics; new computing devices to be embedded into the suits; studying athletes and human bodies microscopically to understand locomotion; developing cutting-edge ways to deal with tears or damage to the fabric; and fusing together wearable computers, smart gels and conductive materials. It’s meant a decade of her life working with designers, astronauts, athletes, new materials developers and a host of people you don’t expect to be involved with space research.

Dava herself seems an unlikely researcher – for one, she’s just too physically charged. She’s a former athlete, clearly of a hyper-competitive sort. She was on the Notre Dame University women’s basketball team, ran the Boston marathon, completed in the National triathlete, and was a Junior Olympics ski racer. She’s also sailed around the world with partner Gui Trotti on their sailboat, aptly christened Galatea, on which Dava was navigator, first mate and computer whiz.

But while she was always captivated by space, from the time she first saw blurry pictures of Apollo 11 landing on the moon at age 5, she hadn’t quite thought of a career in it. She first wanted to be President, then switched to an interest in sports law (with a fervent desire to represent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Fortunately for astronauts, she discovered a passion for space exploration and never looked back. Today, it’s easy to imagine the thrill she must feel as she collaborates with the man she saw hopping around on the moon decades ago, Buzz Aldrin, knowing the first astronaut to walk on Mars may well be kitted out in her dream.

Her current fascination as a teacher, though, is less about space travel and more about the unique, cutting-edge creative space at the intersection of engineering, design and art; she’s also exploring intriguing ways on how to teach creativity and leadership in her classes.

A case study of her own life might well do the trick.

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