The right stuff for the Red Planet

At 35, Dava Newman's an MIT engineer with a lab that would put James Bond's "Q" to shame and a passion for sending people to Mars.

Topics: Bill Clinton, Space, NASA,

The right stuff for the Red Planet

On a summer’s day 30 years ago in her parents’ Montana living room, a 5-year-old girl named Dava Newman sat before the television mesmerized by the image of a man bunny-hopping on the moon. Most people would agree: That mission was not just any old “giant leap for mankind,” but — all hyperbole aside — our greatest achievement in space. But what have we done since? Well, we went to the moon until we got bored, and now we send up the space shuttle, which is as practical as a repair elevator, and about as exciting.

Newman wants more. She’s grown up to be an MIT engineer, and she’s determined to get us where we really want to go: Mars! She’s got a good chance of succeeding: NASA funds a growing force of engineers like Newman who were children when the Eagle landed and who are now eager and capable enough to further our foray into the solar system.

Newman’s graduate students, her fellow professors and her NASA astronaut colleagues all praise her for a rare alignment of qualities: She is a bright and incisive thinker; she is a driven, “roll up your sleeves and solve it now” engineer; and she is a collaborator, a team player who disdains the usual competitive stance of top scientists.

Her partner in life, Guillermo Trotti, became one of the first architects to work with NASA on space-station design. NASA likes his designs so much that they have become reality in the International Space Station habitation module. Trotti and Newman met at an MIT summer session for people interested in human designs for space. For him, she embodies the much-touted American can-do attitude: chin up, team together, get it done.

Though space flight is a much bigger game, Newman is still the undersized, over-spirited basketball player she was as a teenager, the hard-playing, teammate-motivating point guard who leads her team from the great city of Helena, Mont., all the way to the Junior Olympics. If the future mission to Mars inspires a sequel to “The Right Stuff,” who should play Newman in the movie version? Trotti taps Jodie Foster: “She has the drive and the sensibility, the mental and physical beauty for the part.”

It’s not hard to imagine Foster playing the valedictorian wunderkind of Helena. Newman at first thought she wanted to be president (her father was a congressional campaign manager), but without female role models for either politics or athletics, she entered Notre Dame with dreams of becoming the world’s best sports lawyer. She wanted to represent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Her older brother, himself a lawyer, convinced her that engineering would give her a technical background that law schools would like.

But before she graduated, two things changed her course: She fell in love with flight, especially human space flight; and she despised Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative — Star Wars. Space was no place for war. So, law be damned, aerospace engineering it was — human aerospace engineering, because, as she once said to an audience of young students, that’s the key to ensuring “cooperative, global human space exploration rather than … militarization of space, to which I’m opposed” — what a great moment that would be in a Foster film.

Good engineers are incessant tinkerers, and now that graduate school and professorship have set her at the forefront of aerospace bioengineering, Newman runs a workshop full of toys. It’s like a messier version of Q’s lab in the James Bond films, without the weapons, of course. There are gadgets everywhere: computers, treadmills, whirling platforms, ceiling tracks, moving robots — all generating the engineering know-how to send people to Mars.

The first set of problems has to do with getting astronauts there and back without them turning to jelly. These are problems that scientists, including Newman, began studying on the Mir space station cosmonauts. After a few months in zero gravity, the cosmonauts’ bones and muscles began to deteriorate, especially in the legs, pelvis and back. The human body evolved in gravity. We’re meant to be bipeds that pound the Earth as we move about every day, and we have come to rely on that pounding. Our skeleton needs the repeated stress of our walking weight to break down old, brittle bone, release the trapped calcium and use it to grow sturdy new bone. Without daily pounding, bone doesn’t regenerate. It just gets brittle. Likewise, our muscles — even if we’re not athletic in the modern sense — require the daily motions of moving about and carrying our weight to stay healthy.

Newman’s rocket science colleagues claim they can send a manned spacecraft to Mars and back in two years (a solid achievement at over 6,000 mph). Given what we know about debilitation in zero gravity, here’s what would happen to the person on the ship: A 30-year-old astronaut would come back with the osteoporotic bones of an 80-year-old woman. Pull him out on the landing pad to congratulate him and he will collapse. It will take him months to build up enough muscle to walk again, and he could break his bones a number of times in the process. What’s needed are countermeasures, as the engineers call them.

One of Newman’s countermeasures is a rotating bed, a long, body-wide platform that whirls about quickly. You lie down on it with your head toward the center, and as it spins your feet press against a little endplate. To try it on Earth is sort of a sickening ride. But if you tried it in space (with your eyes closed), you would feel more or less as though you were standing still on Earth: The centrifugal force of the whirling mimics the force of gravity. If the Mars astronaut slept on this every “night,” his body would spend a third of the voyage in artificial gravity, though he would have to get used to the sensation of sleeping standing up.

Another Newman lab project is a specialized treadmill with bungee cords that pull the runner down to the track with a force close to that of gravity. Mir cosmonauts had an early version of this, and they were required to jog on it for four hours a day. Newman and her colleagues work on combinations of treadmill design and dietary supplements to see if they can shorten the amount of exercise time required and still curtail the bone and muscle loss. Newman’s greatest laboratory ever goes into operation next year: the International Space Station, which will be home to a continuous supply of bone-losing, muscle-atrophying astronauts to experiment on.

These are just the problems of getting to Mars and back with the healthy body you started with. What about once you’re there? The lander’s down, the dust has settled and you are required to open the hatch and step outside. This is the moment you’ve come for. What in the worlds do you wear?

“I’d like to put on my sweater and a skirt if I’ve got work to do on Mars,” Newman says. “The moon suit was over 100 pounds, and bunny hopping was fine for what they did. But we have to stop thinking big, white and clunky.” She has started designing her own suit, which will look nothing like anything we’ve seen before.

Newman’s tinker toy for this project is a robot she has on loan from NASA. It’s a 6-foot-2-inch black-and-silver humanoid that Newman calls “Tallchief” because she considers it as elegant as Maria Tallchief, the Native American prima ballerina who founded the New York City Ballet with her husband George Ballanchine. Tallchief (the robot) is wired to a computer and a sensor suit. The way to move Tallchief is to get in the sensor suit and move yourself around. Whatever you do, Tallchief does.

The robot is a human engineer’s dream because you can poke and prod it invasively. To design a suit for running around the surface of Mars — Newman insists: no bunny hopping — she needs to know, for instance, how much torque a human applies at the knee when he pulls his back leg forward while walking in Martian gravity (Martian gravity is three-eighths of Earth’s gravity: If you weigh 150 pounds here, you will feel like 56 pounds there). As Tallchief walks on the treadmill next to the graduate student who controls it, Newman can jab a torque measuring device into the robot’s knee joint. You can’t jab a graduate student.

For Newman, the ultimate Martian space suit should be a “smart second skin”: light and thin like a wetsuit, smart like a computer and wired like the human nervous system so that it knows everything about the precious body inside it. Of course, it must also resist Mars’ frigid temperatures, provide oxygen so astronauts can breathe and apply terrestrial atmospheric pressure so their blood doesn’t, literally, boil.

Newman also wants her smart-skin space suit to help astronauts move, giving them superhuman flexibility as they wander around the hills and valleys of Mars. And she envisions the opposite: The suit could be programmed to resist astronaut movements in zero gravity settings, so that wearing the suit is an exercise in itself — a proper countermeasure to bone and muscle loss. With nanotechnology’s advances making smart devices small, Newman’s ideas may well be buildable by the time NASA is ready to slate a manned mission to Mars. Though the recent losses of remote-controlled craft around Mars have paused all planning for the time being, Newman points out that planetary alignments give prime launch windows in 2011, 2014 and 2018.

Engineers are one of the pools NASA fishes for astronauts. Given her age, her smarts and her life-long athleticism, it’s not hard to imagine Dava Newman leaping at the chance to man the mission to Mars. Asked about it, she talks of “service to my country so it doesn’t matter how I’m involved” and “I would only go if it were the best thing for the mission,” and ends with, “If I could go with my sweetheart, sure.” Sweetheart Guillermo Trotti echoes her; it would be much better to go together. Years of isolation are tough on the strongest of souls. But Trotti doesn’t practice circumlocution: The truth is either of them would go in a second.

Newman is not funded by the military, though there is plenty of money available from the Pentagon for her type of research. But she has become quieter over the years on this point of policy as she has risen to the tenuous rank of associate professor at MIT, an institution that, for all its greatness, has a knack for politicizing its tenure track and a reputation for not promoting women (the record is improving). The purest of scientists, which MITers certainly consider themselves, are always supposed to say that policy is not their business: Who cares where the money comes from? Just do the work. So it is unclear whether Newman’s new silence on the military is an actual fading of feeling — or realpolitik in a department that would consider a commitment to the peaceful exploration of space too political for a pure scientist.

Or perhaps it is enough that her efforts will allow more humans to spend more time in space. After all, the more bodies living aloft in cooperative enterprises like the International Space Station, the more out-of-place the new Star Wars initiative will seem (President Clinton signed off on Star Wars last year, despite the plan’s international status as technologia non grata).

Newman also works hard to bring young people into her field. Her Web page on the National Academy of Engineering site is a solicitation to young women to become engineers. She is famous as a teacher at MIT for the final project she runs in her course “Introduction to Aerospace Engineering and Design.” As they learn about pitch, trim, stability, thrust and yaw, the undergraduates must design and build motorized remote-control blimps. On a sunny day at the end of the semester, they race the blimps against each other along an aerial obstacle course around the MIT field house. According to Dr. Lawrence Young, a senior professor in her department, Newman’s you-can-do-it-too approach brings out the challenge, the art and the fun of engineering that is too often lost in textbook teaching.

She is where she wants to be, says Newman — teaching people to fly and engineering the systems needed to get our fidgety species to Mars, while drawing on her earliest inspiration: “The awe and mystery and expectation that have been with me since I was 5,” when Armstrong and Aldrin, wearing their big, white and clunky suits, bounced around the moon on her television set.

William Speed Weed is a freelance writer and radio producer living in San Francisco.

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