Draper To Test Spacesuit Tech on NASA-funded Parabolic Flight

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Draper Laboratory is getting a fresh $250,000 from NASA to test gravity-imitating spacesuit technology on a commercial parabolic research flight perhaps as soon as this fall.

The April 22 grant from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program follows a $500,000 award Draper received from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program in late 2012 for a two-year effort to develop technology that could be integrated into an astronaut’s clothing to better adapt to the disorienting effects of weightlessness.

Rebecca Vazquez, an electro-mechanical engineer working on the V2Suit. Credit: SpaceNews/Jonathan Charlton
Rebecca Vasquez, an electro-mechanical engineer working on the V2Suit. Credit: SpaceNews/Jonathan Charlton

Seamus Tuohy, director of Draper’s space systems division here, said the lab has matched NASA’s money with about $500,000 of its own to further develop the Variable Vector Countermeasure Suit, which could one day give astronauts a sense of “down” while floating in space.

The so-called V2Suit that Draper engineers envision will incorporate an inertial measurement unit and control moment gyroscopes (CMGs), the same technology that enables satellites to keep a desired orientation. If an astronaut were to raise his or her arm, got example, the CMGs would spin up and emulate the resistance of Earth’s gravity.

The challenge for engineers is to design CMGs tiny enough to be wearable. While Draper’s current hardware is smaller than earlier versions, it is still too big to be incorporated into the suit.

Should the testing go well, Draper will continue to miniaturize the hardware by developing custom parts instead of depending on what is commercially available.

“This flight opportunity allows us to demonstrate our technology in a relevant environment for spaceflight use, as well as determine how much torque we need to generate so that astronauts can feel the resistance while weightless,” said Kevin Duda, Draper’s principal investigator for the V2Suit program.

By creating gravity-like resistance, such a suit would mitigate microgravity’s negative effects on the muscular, skeletal, and sensorimotor systems. It would also free up the many hours astronauts have to spend exercising just to maintain their normal muscle mass and bone density in the absence of gravity.

NASA’s Human Research Program is also interested in the suit’s ability to track an astronaut’s position and orientation aboard the International Space Station. Studying these movements allows engineers to see how and where astronauts move, which will inform the design of future spacecraft interiors.

Draper says this technology has terrestrial uses, too. Rebecca Vasquez, an electro-mechanical engineer working on the V2Suit, envisions a suit equipped with multiple CMGs that could be used for physical therapy.“You would rehabilitate your shoulder on the drive to work,” Vasquez said.

Draper won one of six awards NASA made late last month for testing various space technologies on research aircraft that provide brief periods of near weightlessness by flying a series of acrobatic maneuvers.

NASA said at the time of the awards that the six selectees proposed flying their payloads on parabolic aircraft operated by Zero-G Corp. and Integrated Spaceflight Services.

Both Zero-G and Integrated Spaceflight Services — Swiss Space Systems’ North American partner for reduced-gravity flights — told SpaceNews they expect to fly most of NASA’s current crop of awardees.

“We anticipate a majority of the awardees will fly their payloads with Zero Gravity Corporation,” Zero-G President Terese Brewster said via email May 8.

Integrated Spaceflight Services went even further, saying that five of the six awardees — including Draper — will be flying with with Integrated. Jason Reimuller, the Boulder, Colorado-based company’s chief executive, said May 6 via email that Draper would be flying its V2Suit payload and a pair of researchers on a Swiss Space Systems Airbus flight from Florida sometime between this fall and early 2016.

Neither Draper nor NASA would confirm that Draper intends to fly with Integrated Spaceflight Services.

“The researcher is more in the driver seat than before,” NASA spokeswoman Leslie Williams said May 6.

Draper spokesman Jeremy Singer said details of the V2Suit team’s parabolic flight, including when it will happen and aboard which aircraft, haven’t been decided.

NASA, meanwhile, is back to relying on its own own specially modified C-9 cargo plane for in-house parabolic flights since letting a roughly $11 million contract with Zero Gravity Corp. expire last June.

NASA had planned to seek proposals this spring for commercially operated parabolic flight services, but notified prospective bidders April 6 that the agency had decided against funding the solicitation.

NASA’s C-9 flew parabolic research missions last July and August. Williams said C-9 flights will continue to be used this year, with flight campaigns starting in June.