The suits Draper's collective has designed feature, like the current versions, jetpacks. But their jetpacks are much more powerful than the contingency versions that currently propel spacesuits. The current pack is known, in groan-worthy NASAese, as the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (that's right: the SAFER). It's designed specifically and narrowly for "propulsive self-rescue" in emergencies that find an astronaut untethered from his or her spacecraft. But SAFER is not, you know, always better. Its jetpack will give you some forward thrust; it won't let you do much steering.
The suit Draper is prototyping wants to change that. It makes strategic use of gyroscopes (specifically, control moment gyroscopes, or CMGs) -- which, says Bobby Cohanim, Draper's Mission Design Group leader, will be able to "keep the astronauts stable by adding attitude control to offset torques and forces and increase range of motion."
Draper's jetpack testbed -- rendered as part of a spacesuit, and prototyped in the lab (Draper Laboratory/MIT/NASA JSC)
That stability is crucial. Because the future spacesuit is actually, in Draper's vision, a "next-generation maneuvering and stability system" -- one that "incorporates control concepts optimized to support astronaut tasks." The lab is trying to turn spacesuits, basically, into workspaces. It imagines a future in which astronauts will fly, rather than float, in space.
And that's because that future will likely involve the exploration of near-Earth asteroids and (fingers crossed!) Martian moons. It's a future that will require humans to do work in zero-gravity and, more likely, microgravity. In those environments, tasks that would be simple on Earth -- hammering, digging, screwdriving -- are potential sources of danger. A torquey twist of the wrench as you're making a spaceship repair could keep you perpetually rotating, whirling away from your craft. On an asteroid, a dig of a shovel could push you away from the surface you're excavating.
And gravity would not be there to pull you back in.
Without a pilotable suit, in other words, future astronauts could face the fate that almost befell Ed White: ending their lives alone, severed, in space.
Segway to the Stars
The notion of using gyroscopes in spacesuits, Kevin Duda, Draper's principal investigator in the spacesuit project, told me, dates as far back as the early 1970s -- to the Astronaut Maneuvering Equipment experiment done with Skylab. "They had something similar to what we're proposing for the EVA suit," Duda notes.
Reason Number 5,324 to be jealous of astronaut Bruce McCandless: He got to operate this jet-pack-enabled suit... in space. (NASA)
Then came the thruster-focused jetpacks, first space-tested in 1984 by the astronaut Bruce McCandless. Then came the SAFER devices, first used in 1994. Today, NASA is developing an iteration of the SAFER concept: a maneuvering unit that will allow astronauts to make external spaceship and space station repairs in hard-to-reach areas. That device, the Draper team notes, has obvious applications for EVA tasks near the surface of low-gravity objects: The modified jetpack could, ostensibly, be used on the surface of an asteroid or a moon.