Meet aeronautics and engineering professor and intrepid sailor Dava Newman in these videos, blog posts, and interviews from NOVA's "The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers." Dava is currently working with NASA to develop a new, more efficient spacesuit for future space exploration. She is also an expert sailor who has circumnavigated the world.
“I’ve always been a little bit of an explorer.”
Dava Newman is an aerospace engineer who designs spacesuits that help astronauts to bend and stretch – and reach for the stars.
Dava is a sailor. When she was sailing around the world, Dava spotted a pod of a hundred dolphins.
Dava Newman designs the coolest-looking spacesuit ever.
By Sea or Space
Dava Newman sails around the world to satisfy her lifelong jones for exploration.
30 Second Science with Dava Newman
We give Dava Newman 30 seconds to describe her science, and she wishes we gave her more.
10 Questions for Dava Newman
We ask Dava Newman 10 questions and learn that she loves Stanley Kubrick, but not flags.
A two-person job
Today’s post is from SLoS associate producer, Laura Willcox.
When Dava Newman came into the “Secret Life” studios, she approached me and asked if I could help her put on her cutting-edge spacesuit for her interview. I’d been very excited to see the suit in person and was, of course, happy to help Dava. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the white wetsuit look-alike that Dava pulled from her bag as she said, “Putting this thing on is definitely a two-person job!” Huh? Surely that couldn’t be the suit that was going to be worn in outer space? There didn’t seem to be much to Dava’s Bio-Suit (well, except for the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles-esque protective “shell” on the back). Curious.
Oh. And I also wasn’t prepared for the fact that, like a wetsuit, you have to get completely naked before you can put on the Bio-Suit (it really is a “second skin”—it goes right over your first one).
Suddenly, there with Dava in the SLoS Ladies’ Room, I found myself in the midst of a traumatic flashback to the first time I ever put on a wetsuit—it was during a SCUBA trip I took with a school group. I vividly recall doing my best to gracefully shimmy into an incredibly tight rented wetsuit in front of my peers while our German SCUBA instructor, the only man I’ve ever met named GiGi, dropped trou right in front of us. I hoped Dava wasn’t having quite as harrowing an experience now with me.
Luckily, Dava had a much better sense of humor about having a stranger help her with a costume change. And it turns out that the BioSuit’s skin-tight fit is part of what makes it able to support life in outer space! (Hmm, then what’s YOUR excuse for being so darn tight, wetsuit??) Of course, here on Earth, the Bio-Suit’s intense, direct-to-skin pressure made it a real pain in the moon-boots to put on. It took us about 20 minutes of collective yanking to get the suit on Dava. (And then there was the minor interruption when our production assistant, Maggie, came into the bathroom with a camera to get behind-the-scenes footage—Dava was a very good sport about that….). Finally, Dava had the suit on and was totally ready for her close-up. Seeing the revolutionary Bio-Suit in person, modeled by one of its creators, definitely made it to the top of my “Neat Things I’ve Done” list.
Check out Dava’s videos to find out even more reasons why you’re DEFINITELY gonna want a Bio-Suit when we’re all vacationing on the Moon.
The first thing we noticed when Dava Newman come into our studios wearing her spacesuit—also known as the Bio-Suit—was that it was most definitely not your father’s spacesuit. (And as an aside, everyone on the SLoS team loves having a job that involves people visiting us in spacesuits!) Dava explained that she and her team are building the Bio-Suit with the goal of increasing astronauts’ flexibility and mobility—a key piece of the puzzle as NASA plans future space exploration. Dava also told us that there have already been some completely unanticipated benefits of her suit’s innovative design: “Something that’s been fantastic about the Bio-Suit design—which is like a second skin contoured to the body—is that I’m not in a big 300-pound spacesuit where you don’t know whether I’m a man or a woman because it’s so big and clunky. The Bio-Suit is skin tight, so you can say, ‘Oh, hey—there’s a male astronaut, there’s a female astronaut.’ So, I’ve been really pleasantly surprised—a lot of young girls are completely turned on by the design of the Bio-Suit. And they come up to me when I give talks at schools, and they think it’s pretty neat that it might be a spacesuit for a female astronaut. And oh, by the way, they think they might want to be an astronaut.”
As someone who was one of only two female students back in her undergraduate aerospace engineering department (there were 38 men), Dava knows more than a little about the importance of role models—and the lack thereof. So she continues to wear her Bio-Suit when she talks with children: “I want kids to know that engineering and science can be for all boys and girls… I’d love them all to be aerospace engineers and love their jobs as much as I do.”
Dava answers your questions
Q: How did a Montana girl get from the Big Sky to Notre Dame and MIT?
DN (Dava Newman): My heart is still in the West, and things have a way of going full-circle. I have a new NASA project with ExplorationWorks in Helena, MT. ExWorks is a children’s science museum and I’ll be working with them for the next four years to develop space exploration exhibits and curriculum. We’re also targeting STEM outreach to rural and native American kids. Early on, I was inspired by Apollo and growing up in the mountains in Montana. I had no idea there were so many corn fields in the mid-west when I landed in Notre Dame when I was 17. Well, it was a good place to study and I played basketball for my first two years. Then I started coaching an inner city high girls basketball team, which taught me so many lessons. I moved to the East Coast, missing the West, but for the chance to study at MIT and pursue my PhD, and my dream of becoming a university professor. It all worked out well, and I’m grateful. By the way, Utah is my absolutely favorite state for skiing!
Q: What is the biggest reaction you get from people about your suit? Are there any plans to make it bionic to help astronauts when they need the extra help?
DN: Most people’s initial reaction is typically, “that doesn’t look like a spacesuit”, or often, “that’s a spacesuit? Cool!” It’s a great question and it’s important to me as an engineer and designer that I’m providing a concept and suit that people find unconventional and something new, perhaps that they hadn’t thought possibly previously. Yes, we are currently performing research for enhanced mobility and locomotion. The focus of our current work is to design assistive devices within the suit in the legs, utilizing our novel pattern, to try to assist people on earth with walking. It is my 10-year dream to be able to have an actuated suit capability to assist children with cerebral palsy to walk. Finally, we have another suit design called the Gravity Loading Suit that we envision as using as an astronaut exercise suit (inside the vehicle for intravehicular activities, IVA) as a countermeasure to physiological deconditioning.
Q: Is this an environmental suit only? What protection does it provide against radiation, and/or micrometeorites?
DN: The BioSuit™ design focuses on pressure production (to 30 KPa, or 1/3 atm) primarily, which is where our real innovation comes through. Radiation and micrometeorite protection are also extremely critical. We have a few concepts, but nothing that I’d call breakthrough at this point. Minimum radiation protection will likely be implemented in to the suit itself, due to the mass penalty. Novel concepts for radiation (advanced materials and perhaps medication) are on the horizon, and will likely be implemented in to habitats, rovers and emergency shelters. Micrometeorite protection for the BioSuit™ might be best handled by putting on a separate outer layer, which would be solely for that purpose. There’s always more work to due, and for us, especially when it comes to radiation and micrometeorite protection.
Q: How does your research and work on the biosuit help protect astronauts bones and muscles? (We are studying the human body in my third grade science class, and I am doing my project astronauts.
DN: I hope that your astronaut project is excellent. I imagine it will be. We also study musculoskeletal (bones and muscles) deconditioning. Did you know that astronauts typically lose about 30% muscle atrophy, up to 40% muscle strength loss, and 1-2% bone mineral density loss (per month) during long-duration missions (i.e., International Space Station). There are some promising exercise countermeasures, and we also study artificial gravity in our lab at MIT. We think of artificial gravity as being the ‘ultimate countermeasure’ for a human mission to Mars (i.e., ~ 4 years in total). We have developed a new concept, called the Gravity Loading Suit, which is a tight fitting suit that astronauts could wear inside the space vehicle and essentially they would exercise against the suit. The suit provides graded pressure from the shoulders down to the feet, and attains a 1 body weight (or 1 G) loading at the feet. You can find some great online information for your school work here up your enthusiasm. We’re counting on you to be ready to be an astronaut for a Mars mission.
Q: How have you found the characteristics of being a sailor help you in your career and outlook on life? And my daughter is an animator but wants to go into aerospace engineering, what advice would you give her?
DN: I was actually an aerospace engineer before I was a sailor, so for me it might be that my aerospace know-how informed my sailing. For Gui, he was definitely a sailor first, as a child, and I do believe that it inspired some of his space design work. Things have a way of going full-circle, as an architect and designer, he is now using his aerospace design expertise to inform the interior design for a mini-racing boat. For both of us, space exploration and sailing are the best ways we know of to explore and reflect on both outer and inner space. The similarities for us are living and performing in isolated, confined, harsh environments.
Please DO encourage your daughter to pursue aerospace engineering. We need all of the bright minds we can get to help solve society’s technical challenges. Her animation background will serve her very well for design-related courses in engineering and also in computers and computation, which is required for MIT aerospace engineers. There are numerous aerospace eng. depts. (~30) that she might want to look in to. For example, MIT, CalTech, the Big Ten/Twelve schools (Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, etc.), Georgia Tech, Univ. of Washington. There are also great options for more general engineering at liberal arts universities, if she’s more comfortable in that environment (Princeton, Cornell, etc.). I went to Notre Dame. Most importantly, I’d just encourage her to purse an engineering degree.