Exclusive Interview: Meet Dr. Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator of NASA

Biohacking Science Space
Exclusive Interview: Meet Dr. Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator of NASA
Dr. Dava Newman in the Bio-Suit. Photo by Douglas Sonders via Business Insider

Dr. Dava Newman dreams of a day where space exploration is aided by perfectly engineered spacesuits. And she’s doing more than dream — Dr. Newman is celebrated for her extensive study and research on the development of space activity suits. Her focus is mainly on the “Bio-Suit,” a feat of engineering that provides pressure by tension in the suit’s textile design rather than with pressurized gas. The suit is designed to aid with mobility and health for our future mission to Mars. Dr. Newman is not only a dedicated, forward-thinking engineer and inventor, she’s an inspiration to Makers.

Dr. Newman joined NASA as their Deputy Administrator in May of this year, and previously worked as a professor of astronautics and engineering systems at MIT. She certainly has a lot to say about the current state of space exploration and what’s coming next. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Newman before the Tested Live Show last week in San Francisco to talk about the Maker Movement, The Martian, and the importance of olive oil.

Check out the video for the abbreviated interview.

Portrait, Dava J. Newman, Deputy Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Dr. Newman. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA

What pushed you to study aerodynamics and astrodynamics?
The field of aerospace engineering really appealed to me when I was an undergraduate, before that I didn’t really know about it. I kept thinking, “where do science, math, and physics come together?” I found that aerospace engineering encompassed all of those aspects and more. I’ve always had a passion for exploration and the Apollo program, so that was also a hook for me.

Is there a person that has been a big inspiration for you in regard to space exploration?
Many people — the world’s great explorers. I really like to study explorers all over time and history. I’m impressed by all of NASA’s great astronauts from Apollo and moving forward to our astronauts currently on space stations. So really, all explorers and people that survive extreme environments give me a great amount of inspiration.

Something everyone is going to want to know is if you were consulted for The Martian. Have you seen it?
I didn’t personally consult for The Martian, but NASA did. I just joined NASA in May so the movie was already made. I’m so glad that we were able to provided expertise and advice. My NASA colleagues said that it was great to work with Andy. And yes, I’ve seen it.

screen shot 2015-08-19 at 10.41.45 am
Photo via YouTube/20th Century Fox

Did you think it was fairly accurate?
Technically it’s the best space movie that I’ve ever seen and I’m a pretty harsh critic. Andy did a great job with his research and accuracy and where things had more artistic license, which is good for a book and for a show. He was very upfront about it. Overall, it was really spot on.

I read that you went on a pretty long sailing trip with your husband – do you think that trip influenced the way you think about space travel or life on Mars in regard to facing random problems or troubleshooting?
Absolutely, our circumnavigation on our sailboat around the world was long: 836,000 nautical miles, spanning over 18 months. I’ve always been an explorer so surviving on a boat sailing around the world while teaching children was fantastic. We went to 33 remote islands; on about a dozen of those we were able to teach seminars on exploration by sea and space. We learned a lot about living in extreme environments during this trip, which is somewhat similar to what you might expect living on a space station and the isolated, confined space of space travel.

I heard that you ran into a little trouble on the trip and a different use of olive oil, could you tell me about that?
[Laughs] It was kind of our Apollo 13 moment. We were crossing the Pacific Ocean. We left from the Galapagos — it’s the longest crossing of any ocean in the world, it’s a 3,200-mile nautical stretch from the Galapagos to the Marquesas Island. We still had 1,000 miles to go and that’s when we lost our steering. Our boat works with hydraulic steering, and all of the hydraulic fluid had leaked out. Of course I discovered this on my watch. You think because you’re tired you might be making it up or your mind is playing tricks on you, which might be the case. We had just purchased 4 liters of extra virgin olive oil in Panama, after sailing the Panama Canal. Many people may not know this but extra virgin olive oil has the same viscosity as hydraulic fluid. Since I’m an engineer this is good to know, although it took a couple tries to figure it out. We suddenly realized that we had a large reserve of “fuel” to fill up our hydraulic system. With a little tygon tubing, something to pour the oil in with, and a hose clamp for the leak, we traveled the 1,000 miles on extra virgin olive oil in our hydraulic system and made it.

Can you tell me a little more about the mission to Mars?
Yes, NASA is already on the mission to Mars. We have 5 rovers and orbiters on Mars today. We’re getting great data and high definition images everyday from Mars. Just recently, we discovered there’s water on Mars, we knew there was ice, and ice at the poles and we continue to get more information. Now there’s actual “rogue” water, which is very salty, almost like saline, so you can imagine that everyday brings new fascinating discoveries.

Our entire journey to Mars starts at a space station, where we are learning about how astronauts are living in the long term. We currently have year-long missions that astronauts like Scott Kelly are currently assigned to. We’re also learning about the astronaut’s health. This is important to us because we want to make sure to keep them healthy and well.

Eventually we want to move out to cislunar space, which is earth/moon orbit and the first phase [of space]. We are developing heavy lift rockets to get us there with our space launch system, and the Orion Capsule. These are new systems, which we call the “proving ground” in which we get to make great technological investments, because going from lower earth orbit where we are Earth-dependent to cislunar space means we are days to weeks away from any help and from the space station where you’re within a day of help. When you get to cislunar space, it’s like crossing one of the major oceans, like when we were sailing and we lost our fuel, we were days to weeks away before we were going to get any help, which marks the second phase. And then you get into the third phase where you’re in Mars’ vicinity, where you get into Mars orbit and now you’re Earth-independent, and you have no help from Earth so you have to be completely autonomous. And this is what we’re working up to; we are hoping to get humans to Mars in the 2030’s.

In your past research you worked on bio-suits that work with pressure through the materials and lines of non-extension. What does “lines of non-extension” mean?
A spacesuit is what I like to call the smallest spacecraft. The current spacesuits we are using are gas pressurized, they are an engineering marvel that keeps someone alive amongst other things. In the vacuum of space we get a third of an atmosphere to keep a human alive. The current suits have to be gas-pressurized, provide oxygen, and scrub the carbon dioxide. When you look at a mechanical counter-pressure spacesuit, you apply that same third atmosphere directly to the skin and the lines of non-extension are a patterning without using gas pressurization. It’s three-dimensional body patterning that basically follows mathematics and IU vector calculations of skin, strain, stretch, and field mapping for a human body that applies the proper pressure.

How many styles of the suits are there currently?
We have all sorts of suits for exploration: We have suits for when you are outside the vehicle, that’s what most people think of, those are called EVA or Extra Vehicular Activity suits. There are also suits that are worn inside the vehicle for launch and landing — those are emergency suits. These are just a few. In the future when we go to different planets and we get to Mars, we will need locomotion suits that we are currently developing.

Have you used any wearable sensors and systems that are commercially available to Makers?
First, I think that the wearables industry is just in its infancy and it’s going to boom. I’m wearing my Apple watch right now so the idea that wearables are so mainstream creates a future. I’m interested in sensors like accelerometers, because I’m always interested in tracking movement, looking at people and how they move, and looking at astronauts’ performance. It’s really all about lightweight wearable sensors and right now it’s great that a lot of them are commercially available.

Do you see any of your past research and textile development helping other space applications, like air pressured robots or rovers?
Yes, absolutely. Most of the research that we do at NASA for space applications, we are also thinking of the Earth applications like rovers and robotics. I always try to think of the human in the loop. These are really about the human in the systems, it comes down to, “Where’s the human located?” The human might be at mission control, the human might be in a spacecraft, the human might be on Mars. The humans, machines, and rovers should be thought about as team of explorers. It’s never the humans vs. the robots, they all have great potential, so it’s really a team, sort of like a sports team — you need all the players to succeed. The robots’ autonomy and the future of human machined systems is as important to Earth as it is on our journey to Mars.

curosity jpl
Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Have you seen anything from the DIY space movement or space-hackers that has impressed you?
They have definitely impressed me. The Maker Movement, the do it yourselfers, and citizen science. Because we have the world interested in NASA, we know what we do, but it’s so much fun to open it up for everyone. We get great ideas through responses to our social media channels and it’s really fun to see NASA explode in that realm. We ask all Makers to give us your good ideas! We have to make the vehicles and new systems, so it’s important that everyone is involved. We want everyone to join in our journeys and especially the one to Mars.

Do you have any advice for Makers, especially young Makers, that are interested in space exploration?
Yes, I would love to give some advice to young Makers. I’m a huge proponent of STEM education but I like to call it STEAMD, that’s really important to me: I bring in the arts and design. For me it’s science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, and design, and I think that includes everyone. Who’s not interested in one of those areas? I think it’s really important for this new Maker generation because if you’re a designer and you see yourself as a designer, then you’re in. Or if you see yourself as a scientist or mathematician… because everyone might not see themselves as an engineer like I am. It’s really all about being inclusive to everyone, because the arts inform us of so much.

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