NASA & Contractors Developing New Astronaut Gloves

David Clark Company’s unique spacesuit pressure restraint. (Credit: David Clark Company)
David Clark Company’s unique spacesuit pressure restraint. (Credit: David Clark Company)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Over the summer of 2016, the Next Generation Life Support (NGLS) project received delivery from three industry partners of several new promising spacesuit technologies, namely for advancing glove designs and capabilities. Glove prototypes incorporating these technologies are now undergoing testing and performance evaluation under increased operating pressures and in the more challenging environments expected during future space exploration.

As NASA seeks to expand its horizons in space, current spacesuit and glove technologies must be advanced to meet the new challenges astronauts will face. These missions cannot be performed with existing suit technologies, for example, current EVA gloves have limited life, severely limited hand mobility, and are a significant source of injury during spaceflight.

The test team follows procedures to configure the sensor suite for data collection. In the background, a test subject prepares for testing procedures, which were held in the Sonny Carter Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center. (Credit: NASA)
The test team follows procedures to configure the sensor suite for data collection. In the background, a test subject prepares for testing procedures, which were held in the Sonny Carter Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson Space Center. (Credit: NASA)

“When we look toward human exploration of new locations, such as an asteroid or Mars, the environments are quite different and we need to look at many factors to ensure our astronauts are kept safe,” says Sarah Walsh, project element lead for High Performance EVA Gloves (HPEG).

NGLS research and development of new technologies with Space Technology’s Game Changing Development Program focuses on providing capabilities to fulfill the needs of future exploration missions. Collaborating with NASA’s Human Research Program, under the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, NGLS is investigating mechanisms causing hand injury and will be developing new gloves to significantly reduce injury and improve performance, including mobility and glove life.

Test subject performing glove box operations in front of data collections screen wherein real time glove pressures and several views of glove box can be viewed during testing. (Credit: NASA)
Test subject performing glove box operations in front of data collections screen wherein real time glove pressures and several views of glove box can be viewed during testing. (Credit: NASA)

“It has been incredibly interesting to see how new technologies have been brought in and applied toward advancing EVA gloves,” says Walsh. “We have worked with a number of companies that have various areas of expertise and backgrounds. Going through the process of how to best bring new designs and materials into an environment that they may not be familiar with is challenging, but enlightening.”

To say the efforts have been ‘hand in glove’ may seem cliché, but the close relationships NASA nurtures with industry, academia, and other government agencies help bring forward the best in new technologies for testing and advancement. The test series currently underway is evaluating range of motion, tactility, dexterity, grip strength and mobility. The glove technologies are:

  • ILC Dover, who has supplied spacesuits for NASA, delivered its latest iteration of gas pressurized gloves, which contained several new materials and components. Gas pressurized gloves have been the standard, using a bladder layer containing the gas and maintaining the pressure, a restraint layer providing structural support, and an outer layer providing thermal and physical protection from the environment.
  • The David Clark Company, Inc., delivered a unique pressure restraint layer for gas pressurized gloves using “link net”, an alternative style of pressure restraint the company is developing that has the potential to increase mobility. A link net restraint layer is a fishnet-like, loosely woven fabric that makes up the layer of a spacesuit or glove that helps the gear conform to the wearer’s body.
  • Final Frontier Design delivered its prototype mechanical counter pressure gloves, a concept that counteracts the effects of space (which expand the body) by applying counter pressure to an astronaut’s body with a tight material that has limited elasticity instead of compressing the body using a volume of air.
  • The Robotic Assist Glove, also known as the Space-suit RoboGlove, is a spinoff of the highly successful RoboGlove system developed as part of a partnership between General Motors and NASA. The assistive device augments human strength by transferring part or the entire grasp load from human tendons to artificial ones in the glove. Current work to integrate the technology into an advanced spacesuit design is being led out of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
  • Sensor Suite/Sensor Glove system testing at Johnson was completed with about 30 different sensors, col-lecting data on fingernail strain, force, temperature and humidity. These data are expected to provide additional insight into glove performance, discomfort and injury, all part of HPEG’s overall objectives to mature design to reduce injury and improve overall performance.

The technologies being tested reflect what Walsh says has been of great interest for a long time: alternative pressurization concepts, the role robotics concepts can play, and improved materials to counteract damage.

Sensor gloves configured for testing in Johnson’s Sonny Carter Neutral Buoyancy Lab. (Credit: NASA)
Sensor gloves configured for testing in Johnson’s Sonny Carter Neutral Buoyancy Lab. (Credit: NASA)

“Mechanical counter pressure is an idea that, instead of using gas pressure to generate the required pressure on the body, we can use a physical restriction to provide the pressure, similar to compression socks,” says Walsh. “There are numerous potential benefits such as reduced mass and increased mobility.”

Because gloves have three layers, and so much is required of the gloves, they are bulky and the pressure differential between outside and inside causes them to be very stiff. It’s actually quite strenuous to physically move your hands in EVA gloves.

Final Frontier Design’s mechanical counter pressure gloves performing a peg board dexterity glove box test at FFD’s Brooklyn facility. (Credit: Final Frontier Design)
Final Frontier Design’s mechanical counter pressure gloves performing a peg board dexterity glove box test at FFD’s Brooklyn facility. (Credit: Final Frontier Design)

“The goal of robotic assist gloves research is to understand the benefit associated with adding a system that can help offload some of the physical demand on an astronauts’ hands and to understand the integration requirements with the rest of the spacesuit,” says Walsh. “Our other gas pressurized prototypes are focused on adding new components, materials, and manufacturing techniques to achieve a more flexible, durable and capable glove for the future.“

A major focus for us is to think about the larger integration aspect,” Walsh continues. “The glove is an important part of an entire spacesuit system and that spacesuit will be used for specific missions. We need to make sure we consider how these technology advancements may have broader impacts. And some of these discoveries will have applications that reach further than the spacesuit glove alone.”

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