What You Wear in Space Can Save Your Life
Traveling into space as an astronaut is a challenging mission, and planning and purpose must go into every aspect of your journey – including what you wear to get there.
According to NASA, space radiation “may place astronauts at significant risk for radiation sickness, and increased lifetime risk for cancer, central nervous system effects, and degenerative diseases.” Estimates show astronauts are exposed to radiation equal to 150 to 6,000 chest x-rays.
Enter AstroRad, a wearable, radiation-shielding vest designed by StemRad, with support from the Israel Space Agency and in partnership with Lockheed Martin. The vest, modeled after anti-radiation vests used by first responders here on Earth, could be a game-changer for space travel.
Designing for Deep Space
Lockheed Martin’s role in bringing AstroRad to space included lending our expertise in the deep space radiation environment and the logistics of human space flight.
“We worked with StemRad to help them ensure that this vest functions properly in deep space, while making it something comfortable for astronauts to wear” said Kathleen Coderre, Deputy Manager for Deep Space Exploration, Advanced Programs, Lockheed Martin Space.
AstroRad is designed to protect against solar particle events in particular; these events occur more naturally around solar maximums – periods of maximum solar activity in the Sun’s 11-year solar cycle. The next solar maximum is predicted for 2025, very close in timing with the Artemis III mission that will bring astronauts to the Moon.
“The radiation environment in space is significantly different than on Earth,” said Dr. Oren Milstein, CEO and Chief Scientific Officer of StemRad. “While on Earth heavy elements such as lead are ideal for shielding against photon radiation such as gamma rays, space radiation is mostly made of charged particles such as protons, which are most efficiently stopped by hydrogen.”
AstroRad uses proprietary plastic made of hydrocarbon polymers – the highest concentration of hydrogen in solid form – to protect astronauts.
Like its first responder predecessor, this astronaut vest’s material varies in thickness across the body, with the goal of better protecting organs more susceptible to radiation like breast tissue, lungs and bone marrow tissue, said Dr. Milstein.
One major change took the vest from a pelvic-centric design – more beneficial for radiation here on Earth – to a full-torso design – more beneficial for space radiation.
Designing a vest for deep space also meant considering some surprising factors – including flammability.
“Fire protection is something you wouldn’t think of but because you’re in an oxygen rich environment on the spacecraft, flammability and off-gassing are really big concerns,” said Coderre. “We had to pick the right materials, work with the safety team and do a lot of flammability testing.”
CHARGE-ing On the International Space Station
You wouldn’t buy a piece of clothing without trying it on, right?
NASA’s Comfort and Human factors AstroRad Radiation Garment Evaluation (CHARGE) is an experiment that began in 2019 to test the movement, form, fit and function of AstroRad with five astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
“We got some great feedback from the crew on ways we can make some modifications to make it more comfortable, more usable and basically enable them to wear it for longer periods of time,” said Coderre of CHARGE, which is set to wrap at the end of 2022.
3, 2, 1…Launching MARE
As CHARGE wraps up, Lockheed Martin and StemRad are gearing up for the next experiment in AstroRad’s viability: the Matroshka AstroRad Radiation Experiment (MARE).
MARE will put two dummy torsos, built by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, on the Artemis I mission – one wearing an AstroRad vest, and one without. More than 5,600 sensors in the torsos will measure radiation levels throughout the mission, which will take the Orion spacecraft around the Moon, to determine to what degree the vest offers protection.
“Sensors on both torsos will measure radiation levels throughout the mission,” said Hesham Hussein, Lead Survivability Engineer for Human Radiation Risk, Orion at Lockheed Martin. “Then we can determine to what degree the vest offers protection.”
Engineers won’t get sensor data back till Orion makes it back to Earth at the end of the Artemis I mission.
“After we gather our findings, we’ll turn them into recommendations on ways to improve the vest,” said Hussein.