Houston, We Have a Problem | Meet the Man Making Spacesuits to Stop The Growth of Astronauts' Spines in Outer Space
Dainese's Marcello Bencini also worked on the suit to be used on NASA's 2030 journey to Mars
We’ve teamed up with Dainese to shine a spotlight on luminaries from across the world of action sports and adventure – from big name athletes to epic events that showcase ambition and achievement that goes above and beyond the norm. There's possibly no project better for demonstrating exactly that than Dainese's endeavours into space suit design with MIT, who work with both the ESA and NASA. Here, we meet the man in charge of taking Dainese to the final frontier.
“The muscles become smaller, the bones become weaker, the joints become a bit wobbly, and what happens is that the spine actually elongates to such an extent that when astronauts come back to Earth they are taller by six or seven centimetres. That’s a lot."
The man speaking is Marcello Bencini. Marcello is the Strategic Projects Manager at Dainese.
We’re not talking about the plot for the latest entry to the ‘Alien’ franchise. We’re talking about the realities of space travel - the cons of which are less publically known than the pros, though possibly even more intriguing.
For the past few years Marcello has been working at the forefront of a collaboration between Dainese and MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to create the 'SkinSuit' for the ESA (European Space Agency).
The SkinSuit is a space suit designed to be worn inside the International Space Station to prevent the peculiar issue of spine lengthening in zero-gravity environments.
“Our task was to create a suit which could replicate exactly the effects of gravity on the astronaut while they were in space..."
It’s a collaboration which began after previous work between Dainese and MIT to produce the 'BioSuit' – a spacesuit designed specifically for NASA’s 2030 mission to Mars (which we’ll come back to later).
It's also a collaboration which has been deemed a resounding success after the return of French astronaut Thomas Pesquet having worn the SkinSuit in space on a half-year mission.
“Astronauts run around the International Space Station however many times a day, and when when you spend six months doing that in a zero-gravity environment, without resistance, the human body can switch around," Marcello says.
The vertebrae can expand and relax in a manner it would have otherwise been unable to do under the restraints of gravity, and astronauts in space grow several inches taller as a result.
The astronauts also become prone to serious injury on their return to Earth however, and after a few months of rehabilitation return to their usual height - hence why the NBA haven’t started sending basketball players up to orbit in the off-season.
As Marcello explains: “the problem is that when the astronauts come back to Earth they are at a very high risk of much more serious injuries - specifically of injury to the spine’s intervertebral discs [an injury more commonly known as slipping a disk].
“So our task [for the ESA] was to create a suit which could replicate the effects of gravity on the astronaut while in space. Basically we developed this suit with two years of engineering and design to make it replicate exactly the gravity load on the body."
“The problem with the spacesuits you see in movies is they were engineered to be miniature spaceships, so that you can go wherever and still survive, but they’re very uncomfortable."
The SkinSuit they designed as a result is a skin-tight garment purpose-built to provide "loading in the head-to-foot direction" and “engineered to provide each part of the body with the exact gravity load it would normally feel."
By doing this, the suit is able to counteract the lengthening of the spine, prevent the lower back pain felt by roughly half of astronauts on their emergence in space, and also reduce their risk of injury and the amount of rehabilitation time needed upon their return.
The SkinSuit first went to space in 2015. “After one year of development we sent out the first prototype with Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen on the Iriss Mission," Marcello recalls.
As well as testing out the new SkinSuit, Mogensen’s missions included remote control of a robot on Earth and filming red sprites and blue jet lightning above thunderclouds.
“That was just for one week to make sure that it didn’t explode or it didn’t burn. There are many things that could’ve gone wrong."
Reassuringly, nor the suit or the astronaut came close to exploding. Though it’s worth remembering that Marcello isn’t far exaggerating when he uses that word.
If you were to go into space without a spacesuit, you would literally balloon to twice your normal size as the oxygen in your body expanded. Your lungs would quickly rupture as a result, and as the exposed liquid on your body vaporised, your eyes and tongue would boil.
While you wouldn’t literally explode - your skin is flexible enough to hold you together - you would pass out within 15 seconds, die within 90 and eventually be frozen solid and left to float indefinitely around the endlessness of outer space. Your space suit, then, is pretty important.
“As soon as we were sure that nothing had went wrong we made some final adjustments," says Marcello, “and the final version of the suit went up with the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet from November 2016 until early June ."
Pesquet’s arrival on the Space Station signalled the start of the Proxima mission. His experiments, according to the ESA brief, included: “helping to understand the human brain, ocean currents and radiation in space, how atoms behave and [testing] new spacecraft materials."
Those new spacecraft materials included Dainese’s SkinSuit, and Pesquet also had the privilege of taking two spacewalks to improve and maintain the Space Station.
“The Mars mission is going to be much longer than the current space missions. We are going to need the people on Mars to be working. If you spend all your efforts just moving your spacesuit this isn’t going to work."
“It was super exciting," says Marcello. “When you see something in space that you have made and you have touched it’s something quite unique.
“We’ve not had official feedback yet. But what we do know is that [Pesquet] used the spacesuit continuously, which is a really good thing."
Marcello also points me to a video released by ESA on Pesquet’s return that shows the astronaut walking down a set of airplane stairs “with his own two legs" not long after his return to Earth - at a time when spinal elongation would normally mean most astronauts would still be stuck in rehabilitation or in a wheelchair.
“We like to think that there was some of our contribution in that," Marcello happily admits.
The Mission to Mars
To make the SkinSuit for the ESA, Dainese had to first develop new material with very specific characteristics.
“It’s very elastic around the contours of the body but it does not compress too much," says Marcello. “It’s very stiff in a head to toe direction."
It was only on the back of previous work with MIT in 2007 for a NASA project that Dainese became involved with the linESA, and it was the background of that initial research that helped them develop the materials and designs required to create a suit that could be used in outer space.
Dainese’s first piece of stargazing was actually when MIT approached them for help creating a suit that could be used for NASA’s ‘Mars 2030’ project - the project aiming to take humans to the red planet in 13 years time.
“MIT came to us because they had developed a completely new concept of the spacesuit. I guess you know how normal spacesuits are - the big, bulky ones that you see in the movies," continued Marcello. “The problem with those spacesuits is that they were engineered to be miniature spaceships, so that you can go wherever you want and still survive, but they’re very uncomfortable.
“What happens is that when the astronauts go up to outer space, 80 percent of their efforts, of their energy, is used just to move the suit. It’s very exhausting. This is okay for the current space system, but it doesn’t meet the needs of the Mars 2030 mission.
“The Mars mission is going to be much longer than the current space missions. We are going to need the people on Mars to be working, to build things and make things, and if you spend all your efforts just moving your spacesuit then this isn’t going to work."
The BioSuit is a far more futuristic bit of kit than you're probably used to seeing in films or on TV. It replaces the famous Michelin Man look of the stereotypical astronaut with a far more tight-fitting, attractive and lightweight piece of gear, and is the living embodiment of extensive research and development done on the subject by MIT professor Dava Newman.
Marcello explained: “What we’ve developed is a new suit based on the 'lines of non-extension'. These are the imaginary lines that run around your body, and whatever movement you make they do not elongate, meaning that if you were to wrap yourself following these lines you can protect the body - i.e. not explode - but also move freely."
If you notice a trend of astronauts in Dainese products not exploding throughout this interview, that can only be a good thing.
“So what [MIT] developed was this concept, but they needed someone to make it up. The research was made by MIT and NASA, and they asked us to apply it.
“The thing about the lines of non-extension is that we already have a deep experience of working with the human body and so we were able to make it comfortable. The one we sent out into space - they needed someone to make it comfortable and make it work, and often these super genius engineers miss the connection with reality!"
However interesting Dainese’s space connection might be, it may seem strange that a company renowned for making protective action sports gear would allow themselves to indulge in such a specialist project. For Dainese though, it was ultimately all geared towards gaining insight that could then be go on to be implemented in their everyday product line.
“We actually learned a lot from the research," Marcello says. “The fabric that we used in the SkinSuit we now use in our motorcycle jackets. We needed to adapt some things to make it comfortable but you want a fabric that is stiff because you don’t want it to flutter in the wind.
“That’s why we do this kind of project that might look completely useless from an economic point - far away from our core business - these are projects where we’re associating our brands with the brightest minds in the world.
“When you have to answer questions that you have never answered yourself you learn a lot, and we’re always open to learning about new problems which require new solutions. When you find those solutions you can then apply them to other things."
Dainese made their name making high-tech motorcycle jackets and have since produced protection for everyone from mountain biking world champions to Olympic skiers. We doubt when founder Lino Dainese made his first pair of motocross trousers in 1972 though that he thought his company would ever find themselves quite literally reinventing the spacesuit.
I can’t help but ask Marcello before we wrap up how special it would be to see the suit he helped design worn by the first ever astronaut to reach the planet Mars in 2030? He laughs.
“That would be of course incredible but seeing the [SkinSuit] suit up there, not only for myself but also for the team, has already been incredible.
“Everybody from the top to the bottom of the company can see their contribution to something that has been up there in space. They can see that they are part of something bigger.
“What we hope to go on with now is the NASA project, not because we like NASA more than ESA but because it’s such an ambition project - going to Mars in 2030. We hope to be part of this amazing journey."
A journey that would not only contribute to one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind, but that would write Marcello and Dainese into the history books forever in the process.
Stay tuned to our Dainese Luminaries hub for more from the world of ambition and adventure.
Next month we speak to Sofia Goggia, the Italian alpine ski racer who won her first World Cup gold in March 2017 at Jeongseon in South Korea - on the same course where the Winter Olympic race will take place in February 2018.