Current spacesuits have changed very little in the past 40 years. The bulky, gas-pressurised outfits do give astronauts a bubble of protection, but their significant mass, and the pressure itself, severely limits mobility.
Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, wants to change that.
Newman is working on a sleek, advanced suit designed to allow superior mobility when humans eventually reach Mars or return to the Moon.
The spandex and nylon creation is more Judy Jetson than Neil Armstrong.
Traditional bulky spacesuits "do not afford the mobility and locomotion capability that astronauts need for partial gravity exploration missions", Newman said.
"We really must design for greater mobility and enhanced human and robotic capability," she added.
Seven-year project based on 40-year-old ideas
Newman, her colleague Jeff Hoffman, her students and a local design firm, Trotti and Associates, have been working on the project for about seven years.
Their prototypes are not yet ready for space travel, but demonstrate what they're trying to achieve - a lightweight, skin-tight suit that will allow astronauts to become truly mobile lunar and Mars explorers.
Newman anticipates that the BioSuit could be ready by the time humans are ready to launch an expedition to Mars, possibly in about 10 years.
Current spacesuits could not handle the challenges of such an exploratory mission, Newman said.
The suits could also help astronauts stay fit during the six-month journey to Mars.
Studies have shown that astronauts lose up to 40 per cent of their muscle strength in space, but the new outfits could be designed to offer varying resistance levels, allowing the astronauts to exercise against the suits during a long flight to Mars.
Although getting the suits into space is the ultimate goal, Newman is also focusing on Earth-bound applications in the short term, such as athletic training or helping people walk.
The new BioSuit builds on ideas developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Webb, who first came up with the concept for a 'space activity suit', and Saul Iberall, who postulated the lines of non-extension.
However, neither the technology nor the materials were available then.The project was initially funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.