To Mars and Beyond

NASA’s Cory Simon on getting to the red planet with wearable technology

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in Conversations • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

As we bemoan the standing shelter-at-place orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, consider: What if you were constrained to your home for months? For years? And without the delivery of food, clothing, or other necessities? What would you need to stockpile to survive and how would you fit it all into the limited space available? 

That is the line of thinking for folks like NASA’s Cory Simon, deputy chief of the Human Interface Branch at the Johnson Space Center. As the agency continues mulling over a mission to Mars — a potentially years-long round trip — he sees wearable technology playing an essential role in keeping astronauts supported, safe, and maybe even stylish. 

Simon and I discussed the challenges of getting to the Red Planet and how wearable technology might help. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Arvind Dilawar: What are the major issues NASA is trying to address with wearable technology? 

Cory Simon: Goal-wise, what we’re doing in lower Earth orbit is incredibly useful for long-duration, long-term stays in space. The International Space Station has been occupied for quite a while, so we know a lot about how to operate in lower Earth orbit and we’re really good at that. We are looking forward to an asteroid or Mars mission. Sending humans to Mars is where a lot of new challenges come into play. Some of those are related to clothing. With the propulsion technology that we have, it’s going to take months to travel there — one way. It’s going to take years, potentially, for the entire mission. So we can’t send clothes like we send to the Space Station right now. In the Space Station, crew members use clothes and throw them away or burn them up, and they can trust that new clothes are going to come up. 

You can’t send that much clothing along to Mars. Mass is a huge challenge on the Mars mission, so we want clothes that the crew can wash, maybe? Because they don’t wash anything in space right now. They reuse it, then throw it away. There’s research being done into laundry technologies. If we expose clothing to space, does it get clean? It will apparently kill the bacteria, but what else? What if we expose clothing to radiation? To ozone? We don’t want to use or bring extra water just for laundry if we can avoid it.  

We’re also looking at clothing you can wear for a long time that doesn’t smell, that doesn’t absorb too much sweat, that doesn’t have bacterial growth that causes infection. We’re talking long times, wearing it for weeks and weeks, potentially, and having that be tolerable. That’s one of the challenges of clothing. Also, it can’t be flammable. We worry about flammability in space all the time, especially in higher oxygen-content environments. Those are the material, technical challenges that folks at NASA are thinking about. 

We’re also looking at wearable technology as an opportunity, both in the near term and long term, to improve the safety of the crew, to improve their efficiency, to make it so that the research that they conduct on the Space Station, and the research conducted on them on the Space Station, is more efficient and more productive. As we go farther out into space, can we improve the interface between the crew and the space vehicle? One way that I like to think about it in my lab is that we have a crew member and we have a space vehicle that is providing life-support, transportation, habitation — it’s basically everything to the crew. The human crew member and vehicle are the space mission together. Neither could function independently, in terms of bringing humans to Mars or whatever task we’re trying to accomplish. 

Wearable technology is lowering that barrier between the vehicle and the crew member. The vehicle has access to the human and can adjust and adapt and understand what the human is doing. We’re really trying to lower the human-machine barrier, to improve the interaction. That’s really the effort we’re pushing toward in my lab. 

AD: Are there particular technologies you’re focusing on? 

CS: The Star Trek badge — making that sort of thing a reality, where you can have real-time contact. That would greatly improve the efficiency of our crews. Ideally, we would like to integrate them into garments, but there are problems with manufacturing and reliability and making a rigid circuit board integrated into clothing. Another approach is to miniaturize your electronics and package it into rigid housing and attach it to the body. But without gravity, what is comfortable is a lot different in space than it is on Earth. The fluid in the body shifts without gravity. If you look at crew members, their faces look fat, their arms look fat. The fluid throughout their whole body has shifted, and it takes a while for that to clear out — and actually, it remains to an extent. So you measure their forearm and make a device that’s the right size for this person, and they get into space and it doesn’t fit anymore — or the sensitivity of their skin changes. The different gravity environment is largely responsible for that. 

AD: Are there any other environment-specific challenges? 

CS: Environmental monitoring — monitoring the immediate environment around crew members — is a concern, and partially a challenge, because without gravity heat doesn’t rise. If you look at a video of a candle burning in space, it burns in a little sphere around the tip of the candle. It doesn’t burn in that kind of classic candle shape. If heat doesn’t rise, the mixing of air is different. 

We’re concerned about, specifically, carbon dioxide build-up. We have air blowing through the Space Station, along with other spacecraft, but if the crew is working intently on a task and exhaling, as they would be, they’ll build up a bubble of CO2, which has physiological impacts. It increases pressure on the brain and is leading to visual impacts with crew members long term. Just like we do on the ground, the crew likes to sit around and eat a meal and talk. Well, that means we have six people breathing on each other and blocking ventilation. The more people you get into that space, the more carbon dioxide, the more the physiological impact you have. My lab is developing a carbon dioxide sensor that will clip on to monitor those environments so our researchers can better understand the conditions that the crew is exposed to and better correlate the symptoms that they’re having to the carbon dioxide environment.  

Most of the work that I’ve been doing has been related to enabling additional research on the International Space Station. That research will allow us to more effectively go to Mars or other places. We’re better at understanding the fundamental principles, the electronics packaging aspect, as well as using wearable technology where we can now advance research and our understanding of humans in space — things like how we integrate a mechanical system onto the body comfortably, reliably, that considers human factors, capabilities, and limitations. There’s kind of an exoskeleton approach enabling these kinds of advanced mechanical capabilities. The easiest, most broad way to put it is instrumenting the person — informing the person, through wearable technology, about what the vehicle is doing, giving them access to vehicle systems on demand and mobile. 

AD: Have there been any particularly promising designs? 

CS: There are applications where heads-up displays are really attractive, allowing hands-free operation of things. But in particular there are limitations in space flight for radiation effects on electronics. The radiation that the sun sends our way may — galactic cosmic rays and so on — when they hit a processor or hit an image sensor for a camera, they have the capability to disrupt that device. 

AD: How can you protect equipment from radiation?  

CS: There are different approaches to it. Some fundamental electronics are susceptible to radiation more than others. There are processors that are proven — we call it “Red Hard.” And there’s different failure modes. Sometimes they’ll fail and they’ll fry; sometimes they’ll fail and they’ll lock up, so we just need to reset them. Of course, for mission-critical, safety-critical hardware, it has to be Red Hard. It can’t even reset. 

There are different designs you can consider. Unfortunately, some of the display technologies are more challenging, less-radiation tolerant. You have to test them. It’s sometimes hard to predict, as manufacturers change their technologies for enabling high-speed computing, high-speed graphics cards. Sometimes the easiest way to figure out if it works is to put it in front of radiation. We have access to facilities that generate protons and they shoot protons through the circuit board. You just stick it out there, then you run tests to see its performance and failure modes. •