Hubert Vykukal demonstrates mobility of the Hardsuit AX-3 Space Suit design in 1977.
A spacesuit is a spaceship for one. Bridging fashion, architecture, and engineering, it's a portable environment, a single garment built to protect human beings from the void.
That said, the space suits worn by astronauts today are bulky and restrictive. Extravehicular Mobility Units, the life-sustaining ensembles you see floating Space Station astronauts sporting, weigh close to 200 pounds and turn even the most spry people into lumbering hulks. Considering, the hands-on manual labor that built most of the International Space Station is practically miraculous: imagine trying to complete a Rubik's cube while wearing oven mitts, and you're only a fraction of the way there. The problem of a flexible, functional space suit remains one of aerospace design's most mightily thrown gauntlets.
Thankfully, it's a problem being taken up by makers across the globe. Burgeoning companies like Final Frontier–the unlikely pairing of a Russian suit engineer and an American costume designer, currently tinkering on pressurized suits in a small studio in Brooklyn–are just now beginning to scratch at the surface of this herculean design task, one that was, until recently, the purview of teams in huge labs and factories. And they're doing crazy-futuristic, fascinating work; our new video profiling Final Frontier, The Next Generation Space Suit, is testament.
But what if these guys–not just Final Frontier but space suit designers all over the globe–are approaching the problem from the wrong direction? What if it's not the suits that need designing, but the people wearing them? Strangely, this question beats at the heart of the history of space suit design.
In the belly of the Apollo era, another unlikely pair–Nathan S. Kline, a psychopharmacologist, and Manfred Clynes, a cybernetic mathematician–published a paper about human space travel with the auspicious title of "Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics" (pdf). They were the first to use the word "cyborg," but their paper wasn't about building technologically hybridized man-machines, as our current widespread usage of the word might imply. A cyborg, in Kline and Clyne's view, was an enhanced human being specifically doctored to survive in extraterrestrial environments. Without a space suit.
Clynes and Kline saw space exploration as an evolutionary jump, necessitating parallel advancements in human physiology. Instead of lugging our entire environment along with us, they asked, what if we modified ourselves to survive, qua natura, in outer space?
Samantha Cristoforetti, ESA astronaut, in Neutral Buoyancy Tank, Houston.
Their paper detailed various strategies, mostly pharmaceutical, to modify the human organism to extraterrestrial environments. It's basically homeostatic hacking: Kline and Clynes suggested osmotic pumps embedded in the body, keyed to release a cocktail of drugs directly to specific organs–drugs to control cardiovascular functioning, alter blood pressure and body temperature, neutralize psychoses triggered by sensory deprivation, or counter radiation poisoning. All kinds of irksome human biological processes could be staved off or retooled, they argued. Breathing in space is "all wrong," and trundling sufficient oxygen around too cumbersome; easier just to build a cybernetic lung and shunt blood through a microsystem capable of reducing carbon dioxide and replenishing oxygen directly in the bloodstream.
As for pressurized space suits, they could be avoided entirely if we found a way to manipulate blood pressure to match external conditions. We could accommodate for space's temperature extremes by lowering the temperature of the human body to a "point where the vapor pressure of…fluids is no greater than the internal tissue pressures." Not all of these ideas hold water in 2013: the course of "psychic energizers" and amphetamines suggested for pilot wakefulness borders on modern harsh interrogation techniques, to say nothing of the section that advocates, essentially, "Nausea from lack of gravity? Just drain out the fluids of the inner ear!" But in 1965, the space experiment was really just beginning, and Kline and Clynes knew they were spitballing purely speculative techniques. The core idea is what remains: mankind should use its creative intelligence to adapt itself to space conditions rather than waiting millennia for the grudgingly slow wheels of biological evolution to accomplish the same effect.
Illustrations by Peter Gudynas
NASA actively supported this line of research for nearly a decade, and "Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics" was followed by a NASA-commissioned study, “The Cyborg Study: Engineering Man for Space," in 1963. But federal interest had drifted away by the late 1960s. For one, the technology was nowhere close yet; dialysis machines were as big as refrigerators, artificial organs mostly speculative, and our knowledge of bioengineering rudimentary.
But it was also a hard sell aesthetically. The American public at the time was besotted with flesh-and-blood Apollo astronauts, and wouldn't have accepted a cyborg space corps; even now, NASA's imperative is to bring astronauts home safely, and if they've been remodeled specifically for the inhospitable reaches of space, that might not be possible.
MIT professor Dava Newman's biosuit
The X1 robotic exoskeleton and was developed by NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
To this day, modifying humans for space exploration is an unexplored question. Robots have stepped in to do the dirty work, vaporizing any icky ethical questions about human augmentation, and NASA's Human Research Program now mainly occupies itself with palliating the unpleasant side-effects of living in space: fatigue, poor nutrition, weakened bones, atrophying muscles, and radiation. There's far more discussion in the space community on modifying planets to suit human colonists rather than the other way around: terraforming rather than human-forming. As for "cyborgs," well, it's a broader conceit now, one which arguably affects everyone in the developed world. From smartphones to cochlear implants, we're all already cyborgs to some degree.
Even if we wanted to, we've got a long way to go before we can send vacuum-breathing, pressurized astronauts to work. But things move quickly these days. Even five years ago, a project as comparatively approachable as Final Frontier's would have been impossible. And this is an interesting proposition, one that might actually liberate us from our technological tethers. "If a man in space," Clynes and Kline wrote in 1963, "in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine." The machine, in this case, is the human body. But if we could create systems that automatically and unconsciously take care of all the rote functions of survival–metabolic systems, vestibular function, blood pressure, the regulation of carbon dioxide, to name a few–then astronauts could be free to do what humans do best: explore, create, think, and feel.
At the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Bionic Medicine, Zac Vawter recieved a leg that can be controlled by his brain
Perhaps inspired by this conclusion, the science fiction writer Frederik Pohl would later write Man Plus, a novel in which an astronaut is transformed through major surgery into a "monster," a cyborg built to survive on the surface of Mars. It's a grim, horrifying alteration–the astronaut is even castrated–but in the end he is more human than human, beautifully suited to his new outer-space environment. Instead of a monster, he becomes "man plus," an avatar of the next phase of human evolution, destined to a life among the stars.
Space exploration is a complex logistical, philosophical, and technological pursuit. And even though we've been at it for half a century now, we've barely tossed a frisbee into our own backyard. We haven't yet determined–and it's likely we never will–any "right" approach to the manifold problems it poses. There are countless avenues worth considering, and as many reasons to consider them. Can we modify ourselves without modifying our selves? Can we become, as Pohl imagined, man (or woman) plus? Perhaps, in order to discover the limits of the universe, it might serve us to discover the limits of our own humanity.
- Motherboard TV: The Cyborg
- Panopticon In Reverse: Steve Mann Is Fighting for Your Cyborg Rights
- The Smartphone of the Future Is You
- How Smart Drugs and Cybernetics Could Create a Superhuman Workforce
- Sleek, Smart Spacesuits Are on the Horizon
- The Verge: Cyborg America