SkinSuit designed to reduce harmful physical effects of weightlessness tested on ISS

European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen wearing the SkinSuit on board the International Space Station(Credit: ESA)

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) got a fashion show with a medical twist last month as Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, donned a SkinSuit designed to counteract the harmful effects of prolonged periods of weightlessness on the human body. Developed as part of an international effort led by RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the new suit is designed to simulate the pressures of normal gravity to prevent unhealthy stretching of the spine.

Far from just causing an outer space version of seasickness, zero gravity is a major problem for space travellers. It's an environment that humans aren't designed for that makes it not only hard to tell up from down, but also results in muscle and bone loss, and affects vision, the immune system, the heart, and a number of other body functions. According to RMIT, astronauts lose two percent of their bone mass per month and their spines stretch up to seven cm (2.7 in), which results in various degrees of pain and even a heightened risk of herniated discs on returning to Earth.

The ideal solution for the ravishes of weightlessness would be something like the giant centrifuge aboard the interplanetary spaceship USS Discovery in the 1968 feature 2001, a Space Odyssey. The idea of a giant spinning wheel to simulate gravity keeps attracting engineers, but the challenge of building and operating one in space is still beyond our present capabilities, so alternatives are considered. One idea is to place mini-centrifuges on the ISS for exercising or to attach gyroscopic modules to astronauts to give more of a sense of up and down.

Meanwhile, RMIT's SkinSuit goes for a more sartorial solution. The idea came from the distinct bodysuit worn by Australian gold medal-winner Cathy Freeman while competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The SkinSuit was developed by James Waldie, aerospace engineer and senior research associate at RMIT, and a team of collaborators from MIT, Kings College London, and ESA over a 25-year period.

Made by Italian motorbike leathers manufacturer Dainese, the skin-tight bodysuit is tailored from bi-directional elastic that mimics the pressure of gravity on the human body by exerting a vertical load that gradually compresses the spine and other joints between the shoulders and feet. According to RMIT, the suit has undergone rigorous ground and parabolic flight trials and cleared a spaceflight qualification program before being selected for the ISS mission for its Operational and Technical Evaluation.

The tests were conducted aboard the ISS by astronaut Mogensen during his 10-day September visit as part of the ESA manned spaceflight program. Over two days, he wore the suit while exercising on a bicycle ergometer, and took height measurements, comfort and mobility surveys, and skin swab hygiene assessments. The findings from the ISS test await completion of Morgensen's post-flight debriefing.

"We believe if we can reduce spinal elongation in space, we can reduce the stress on the intervertebral discs," says Waldie. "This should help with pain in-flight, and the chances of slipped discs post-flight."

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