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‘We need to focus on next-gen spacesuit design’

Spaceship designer and entrepreneur Susmita Mohanty on the future of space design and the challenges that lie ahead

Photographs from iStock
Photographs from iStock

One afternoon in the summer of 1996, Susmita Mohanty’s midday nap was interrupted by a phone call from Arthur C. Clarke. The science fiction writer and futurist had called in response to a funding request by Mohanty, then 24, which she had sent to various organizations and individuals, including Carl Sagan and Bill Gates. With the help of a sizeable contribution from her future mentor, Mohanty enrolled into the master’s programme at the International Space University (ISU) in France, and later completed her PhD in aerospace architecture from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Since then, Mohanty has worked with Nasa on Shuttle-Mir missions, with Boeing on the International Space Station (ISS) programme, collaborated with government and non-governmental space entities in Europe, the US and Japan, helped pioneer a new genre of space architecture called Trans-Gravity and launched three companies—MoonFront (2001), an aerospace consulting firm in San Francisco, Liquifer Systems Group (2003), an aerospace architecture and design firm in Vienna, and Earth2Orbit (2008), India’s first private space start-up in Bengaluru. Earth2Orbit focused on facilitating American and Japanese launches on the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket from 2008-2016, and since 2017, has been supporting global climate action by using earth observation data analytics to make cities and agriculture climate-smart.

In an email interview, Mohanty spoke to Lounge about innovations in spacesuit design, the future of space tourism and India’s first manned space mission. Edited excerpts:

Susmita Mohanty
Susmita Mohanty

Lunar dust is known to be extremely toxic for human cells. How can this problem be combated with spacesuit design?

Two of the biggest challenges of living on the moon for extended periods are exposure to unfiltered galactic radiation and moon dust.

The moon does not have an atmosphere; there is no wind and no running water, i.e. no weathering forces. Therefore, moon dust is sharp and jagged, and can ruin spacesuits, mechanical parts of moon buggies and apparently, even get into the hermetic sealing of the spacesuit.

If the astronaut does not leave the suit outside of his/her lunar module (LM), he/she will bring it into the LM and thereby inhale it; it will go sit in the lungs and no one really knows the long-term biological implications of that.

Representational image of spaceship.

I love referring everyone to that famous photo of Eugene Cernan in the LM after his Apollo-17 moon sortie EVA (extravehicular activity)#3 where he looks like a coal miner. That’s how bad it is. Engineers and designers are working on future concepts for habitats (habs) and rovers where the astronauts can leave the suits outside and wiggle into the hab via a door-like opening in their suit backpacks.

We need to focus on next-gen spacesuit design. We need to research advanced materials for space suits, suit ports, dust showers and EVA protocols to minimize the impact of lunar dust. We need to move beyond the bulky spacesuits we use today. For that, we need to push the frontier of material innovation. At the moment, there isn’t enough focus on or funding for these research aspects. I hope that will change once countries like China, India and private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin put planetary human exploration back in the spotlight.

When we imagine the future of space tourism, what are the greatest challenges we face in terms of design?

In 2004, Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic, The Spaceship Company and commissioned (aerospace engineer) Burt Rutan to build SpaceShipTwo that could carry a small tourist crew to the edge of space and back (sub-orbital flight) for $200,000 (around 1.4 crore). It is already 2018 (14 years since) and Virgin Galactic (VG) is yet to fly its first tourist. So, clearly things are not as easy as one would like them to be.

Flight hardware takes time, usually years, even decades. When you have to fly humans, you have to make sure the hardware meets safety and survivability standards—and in the case of space tourism, life-support systems and interior design standards have to meet the baseline that passengers have come to expect in commercial jet liners.

Government space programmes use an “engineering-centric" approach for designing human habitats and ferries. Flight opportunities for astronauts are limited and they are civil servants, so there isn’t much room for complaining about the habitability index of their spaceships.

Unlike government space programmes, space tourism companies will have to take a “user-centric" design approach which will be multidisciplinary because paying tourists will not only expect high standards in habitability and inflight service, but also expect some degree of style. What happened to commercial aviation in the last century will happen to private space flight in this century.

In your opinion, what were the most significant innovations in space design in recent years? And what areas need greater attention?

We need to design and test bio-regenerative life-support systems as well as greenhouses for future long-duration missions. LSG was recently involved in a European consortium project called the EDEN ISS, its objective being to advance controlled environment plant cultivation technologies for safe and continuous food production on long-duration space missions. The EDEN ISS prototype is now being tested in Antarctica.

Space debris is a growing menace and we need to find ways to minimize, even remove debris. Countries like Japan and Switzerland are working on concepts for space debris scoops. The countries that are largely responsible for cluttering outer space, i.e. the US, Russia and China, should also invest in debris removal and mitigation. Just as we have a calculator for “carbon footprint", the international space community should also develop a “space debris footprint" calculator to shame countries and companies that continue to litter outer space.

Representational image of spacesuit blueprints

It should be mandatory for unmanned LEO (low earth orbit) spacecraft to be put through a controlled re-entry and burn once they approach the end of their orbital life. As for dying GEO (geostationary orbit) spacecraft, we should push them into a graveyard orbit so they can escape into deep space.

Further, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty needs to be translated into enforceable law or else powerful countries will unilaterally legislate ownership of celestial objects and resources extracted from extra-terrestrial sources. As on earth, colonization of space is inevitable, given human greed and the need to conquer new frontiers. Star Wars will someday become real, so we need to brace in advance.

3D printing will revolutionize how we design and build future exploration systems. LSG teamed up with the European Space Agency’s (ESA’S) European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, to design “LavaHive"—a modular 3D-printed Mars habitat using a novel construction technique called “lava-casting". They won the third prize in Nasa’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge in 2015.

What does the future of private space entrepreneurship in the country look like?

For private space entrepreneurship to really take off (for now, it is teetering) in India, we need a mindset reboot. Isro (Indian Space Research Organisation) leadership should see entrepreneurs as allies, not competitors.

I grew up with the pioneers of India’s space programme in the early 1970s and 1980s—they were open-minded renaissance people. Many of them had studied and lived abroad before returning to India and joining (Vikram) Sarabhai’s dream team. My dad (Nilamani Mohanty) was one of them. They were encouraging and open to new, even crazy ideas.

Unlike the pioneer-mentors I had, those who are in charge of Isro today seem to be orthodox. They seem to lack the confidence that Indian entrepreneurs can build and launch space-worthy hardware. Culturally, we are very risk averse and cynical . That needs to change.

The other big hurdle is the lack of funding support for entrepreneurs. Unlike Europe and the US, we do not have a funding ecosystem yet for space entrepreneurs. Isro has an excellent annual budget that is steadily growing. So Isro can easily, if it wants to, allocate a few millions to promote entrepreneurship. Our future national space policy must be inclusive and should not be drafted unilaterally. Isro should consult industrial players and entrepreneurs.

India’s first manned space flight has been announced for 2022—are you involved in this project? What are your views on India’s space programme?

No, I am not involved in India’s human space programme (HSP). I will be happy to offer my expertise and insights, if requested.

When I returned to India in 2008, I presented some of the human exploration systems design work done by my Vienna company LSG to the Isro HSP team.

Crew capsule details are yet to be made public by Isro. I have seen photos of some design mock-ups. All I will say for now is that Isro has chosen to go with the splashdown (as opposed to touchdown) version of the crew capsule that can accommodate a three-person crew.

In my view, India should focus on developing a state-of-the-art crew capsule, practise and perfect rendezvous and docking procedures, get extra-vehicular activity experience, test physiological and psychological countermeasures, test life support systems, space hydroponics, etc. and perhaps even build a mini space outpost in LEO, but there is really no need for us to linger on for too many years in LEO. We should instead move on to human missions to the moon and eventually to Mars.

The former Russian space station Mir, the former American Space Shuttle fleet and the currently orbiting International Space Station (ISS) have yielded several decades of physiological, psychological and technological knowledge and valuable data that we can build upon. We should invite international participation for our HSP. I am a big believer in international cooperation, as long as we make sure that our partners do not bully us or hold us back.

Also, only Isro and Nasa (and lately the European Space Agency) can boast of a sizeable number of women in their workforce, including decisionmakers and leaders. And yet, after nearly 50 years (we did our first experimental rocket launch in 1969 from Thumba), we haven’t had even one woman chairperson of Isro. We have had women heading rocket programmes, satellite projects and lately we have a woman, V.R. Lalithambika, heading our HSP. Whenever I attend international space conferences, I don’t see any women from Isro, only men. We need to change that. I hope the next chairperson of Isro will be a woman.

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