Professor Cameron Smith on building a homemade spacesuit

Professor Cameron Smith will deliver his lecture, Spacesuits and Human Evolution, as part of the 2018 Trottier Public Science Symposium.

Cameron Smith, Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University, believes that space exploration should be accessible to everyone – so, he made his very own DIY spacesuit. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, Professor Smith will talk about space exploration and human evolution at the two-day Trottier Symposium, Minding the Future: Living in a High-Tech World, (October 29–30). In advance of his lecture, Prof. Smith spoke to the Reporter about how and why an anthropologist set out to build a homemade spacesuit.

How does an anthropologist get into spacesuit design?

I have studied the evolution of life, and primate life, and of the primates, our genus and species Homo and sapiens. The foundation of this study is that of evolution. Humanity’s distinction is the invention of invention; survival largely not because of our biological bodies, but despite them. This is the use of technology, from stone tools and fire to space suits and spacecraft. So the study of this tool, this survival tool used to live in an environment where we did not evolve, is not so strange to me. It is like the study of the sailing vessels of the ancient Polynesians – humans are not aquatic, yet became oceanic explorers and oceanic settlers by developing sailing and navigation technology over 3,000 years ago. To me, it is entirely natural for an anthropologist to engage in the study of space suits as they are a key technology that will assist in humanity’s future, which I think will significantly include the settlement of environments beyond Earth.

What is the point of making a spacesuit that is affordable by basically anyone?

Right now, the cost-to-orbit for a kilo of anything is into the thousands of dollars. Anything we can do to reduce the cost of space access is, in my view, an advance to the cause of human exploration of our universe and eventual space settlement. A lot of the cost reduction will be in things like reusable spacecraft, but even at present the industry-standard, 10kg space suit costs about $50,000 just to get its weight to orbit; my 5kg space suit is half that cost. Do you want to pay 25k$ or 50k$? Right now, it is all prohibitively expensive, but anything is an advance. Eventually I expect costs will decrease. A hundred years ago, aviation was dangerous and expensive, a glamorous thing for the rich. Today, aviation is a global industry and is cheap and very safe. The same will happen with spaceflight. And this will always need space suit innovations.

What was the biggest challenge to overcome in the design of the spacesuit?

A lot of the challenge is psychological. There is a 60-year history of just a handful of companies supplying federal space agencies with these garments. It is all rather secretive and if you listen to the official line you will think that only they can do these things. I disagree, and our results are showing that the technologies are essentially simple. The technological hurdles have not been complex things, but they took me a long time to learn from scratch, from zero knowledge of these garments. Now I have learned the technologies, from many many experiments, and I have total confidence in the suits, largely due to extensive testing and my knowing every millimetre of these suits as I designed, cut, bonded, sewed, and then tested every millimetre of these suits.

Can you envisage any beneficial spin-off from your work on the spacesuit?

Any advance we make in the world of inflatables will be useful. It is clear that inflatable space habitats will be key to at least early space settlement; inflatables are strong and simple, and textiles and membranes have many advantages over more traditional building materials e.g. metals. And the world of inflatables, which is the key technology I am working on – inflatable garments – is growing rapidly now. An example is mobility. Inflatables not leaking, that is pretty easy these days. But having moving parts, e.g. inflatable joints, that is tough. In space suits, mobility at high suit pressure currently is the Holy Grail that all the labs are working on – including mine. I think the solutions will involve origami and other interesting kinds of folding. In any case, advances in inflatable space suit technology will have significant benefits to the world of inflatables generally, both beyond Earth and on Earth. Currently on Earth, inflatables are used for all kinds of temporary habitats, like relief shelters, and innovative architecture. I am thrilled to be involved in such a dynamic field!

The 2018 Trottier Public Science Symposium, Minding the Future: Living in a High Tech World, will be held on October 29 and 30. Get a rundown of all events on the Symposium webpage. All events will take place at the Centre Mont-Royal (1000 Sherbrooke Street West, corner Mansfield). Registration is required. Register today online.