Space Technologist Lindsay Aitchison Ensures Astronauts are Suited for the Next Moon Mission

Lindsay Aitchison wears a prototype space suit as part of the Advanced Exploration Systems Advanced Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Development Project test of the Portable Life Support System (PLSS) 2.0. The test goal is to evaluate thermal control and life support system performance. (Credit: NASA)

Q&A Courtesy of NASA

Q. What do you do at NASA?

A. I am a spacesuit engineer.

At the beginning of my career, I spent a lot of time in the Advanced Spacesuit Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center with my team testing and modifying spacesuit designs to enable the next generation of astronauts—both men and women—to walk around, work and conduct science experiments on the Moon.

In my current position with the Human Landing System program, I use my experience in spacesuit design to help formulate the strategy for how we are returning astronauts to the Moon and collaborating with the scientists to determine what experiments the astronauts can do once we get there.

Q. Spacesuit design sounds like a really cool job. What are some interesting facts that most people may not know about spacesuits?

A. Developing and designing spacesuits is really interesting and I really enjoy what I do.

Most people get their perceptions about how spacesuits should look and function from movies and TV. They see Buzz Lightyear, Star Wars, Star Trek and the list goes—and think that spacesuits are sleek, fashionable and equipped with super cool gadgets.

The truth is that while spacesuits can be all of those things, making the suits functional and getting all of the necessary systems to work together is really complicated. A spacesuit is an individual spacecraft that must meet all of the same requirements as the International Space Station but in a miniaturized and human-shaped packaged.

A spacesuit’s first and most important job is to protect astronauts in outer space’s extreme environments, which includes providing oxygen to breath, creating a pressurized atmosphere to keep the body functioning, protecting skin from the massive temperature swings, and shielding the body from harmful radiation. Once the crew is safe, the spacesuit has to allow the astronauts enough mobility to perform their tasks.

Arriving at a design is a very methodical and scientific process. The lives of the astronauts depend on our ability to understand every aspect of the space environments they will encounter and provide them with the exact fit and perfect technology to survive and do their jobs.

Lindsay Aitchison flies on KC-135, or “Vomit Comet” aircraft with Student Microgravity Research Experiment in 2005. (Credit: NASA)

Q. Were you always interested in science and technology and when and how did you become interested in space?

A.   My mom is a science teacher and has always encouraged my siblings and me to be curious, ask questions, and work through problems until we figure out an answer that leads us to the next question. So, I’d have to say that it was definitely my mom who who nudged me toward science and technology.

The first time I remember thinking about space specifically was actually in kindergarten. My mom took my sister and me to visit Johnson Space Center. I remember seeing and touching all the exhibits at the museum and watching the IMAX movie on what it’s like to live in space.  From that day forward, I told everyone I wanted to be an astronaut. Even though my initial impression was primarily based on the erroneous idea that astronauts get to float around a super cool spaceship chasing M&M’s—the fascination with space stuck with me.

As I got older, I participated in all sorts of different science, engineering and technology camps in the summer, which led me to imagining all the different ways I could participate in the human spaceflight program. It also helped that engineering was a perfect fit for my personality.

Q. What does it take to work in the space technology field?

A. Well, I think the first thing anyone has to have to work in any science, technology or research field is a healthy dose of curiosity. If you wonder how things work and enjoy the process of trying to figure things out—you’re already half way there.

From there, you need a solid technical background in one of the numerous science or engineering disciplines. Getting some real-word experience through hands on training as an intern or through vocational training is also super helpful! I was fortunate to be part of the co-operative education program (now called NASA Pathways) during my undergraduate years. That meant that I alternated between semesters studying at university and semesters spent working at Johnson Space Center on real space problems. That’s how I found myself working to be a spacesuit engineer – that wasn’t even a career I knew existed until I started working in Houston!

Q. What is your favorite NASA memory (or proudest achievement)?

A. There are so many great memories, it’s hard to choose!

At the top of my list though is definitely getting to serve as a spacesuit test subject. As a spacesuit engineer, it is extremely valuable to have firsthand experience working inside a spacesuit. It gives you a better appreciation for the job you’re asking the crew to do and also helps you to understand and process their feedback during testing. During my career, I’ve been able to participate in testing 10 different spacesuit designs, in many different test environments like the spacesuit lab in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, while connected to the ARGOS, and on the ‘Vomit Comet.’

Q. What is a fun fact or something unusual that most people don’t know about you?

A. Well, I have purple hair and tattoos which are both pretty obvious when you see me in person, but apparently people find it quite unusual for an engineer to express herself so ostentatiously.

Another oddity is that my two favorite hobbies are lifting weights and knitting. On the surface, they appear to be polar opposite but both are fun outlets and are energizing to me. I started lifting weights casually during the off-seasons when I played sports in high school and rowed in college but I really found my groove when I became a part of the CrossFit community about 7 years ago.

I am also a CrossFit Level 1 certificate holder and coach. I started knitting on a bit of whim but quickly became addicted to the process of creating something from a simple piece of string. I’m particularly fond of making sweaters for my family (husband and dog included!)

Space Technologist Lindsay Aitchison Speaks at Human Landing System Industry Forum. (Credit: NASA)

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in a STEM career field?

A. Of course, you have to have a goal, but don’t let yourself get overly fixated on the process. In other words, be open to the idea that there is more than one avenue to achieving what you want. It has been my experience that the more varied your interests are and the more open you are to diverse opportunities, the better success you will have at being happy in your career and life in general. Diverse experience and interests are critical to nurturing creative minds and creativity is the key ingredient that will continuously push you to explore the great beyond.