Insights from a Planetary Spacesuit Designer

Posted on Thu, October 6, 2016

Pablo de León has been in the space business for nearly 20 years, working as a space project manager and spacesuit designer. De León spoke with visitors at the Museum during the 2016 Hispanic Heritage Month: Innovators in Aviation and Space Heritage Family Day as part of the Smithsonian Latino Center’s ¡Descubra! Meet the Science Expert series.

Pablo de León  stands behind a podium. To his left is a large presentation.

Pablo de León speaking at the Smithsonian in 2011 for the New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation Symposium. 

De León is certainly an expert. He founded the Argentine Association of Space Technology. With the Association, he served as the payload manager for Project PADE (Paquete Argentino de Experimentos), a group of seven Argentine experiments that flew on STS-108. These were the first Latin American supported experiments conducted on the space shuttle.

He is currently an associate professor at the University of North Dakota (UND) in the Space Studies Department and director of the UND Space Suit Laboratory, where he and his team are working on the North Dakota Experimental-1 (NDX-1) Mars prototype suit. The team is focused on improving the mobility of spacesuits to help future astronauts walk and work on Mars.

A person outfitted in the new spacesuit uses a tool to pick up balls and place them in bags in front of him.

The North Dakota Experimental-1 (NDX-1) being tested at NASA. 

Stop by the Museum on October 8 between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm to ask Pablo de León about his career. For those of you who aren’t able to visit us in person, de León agreed to answer a few of our questions.

What is the most amazing experience you’ve had in your job?
You get lots of interesting experiences when you work in my field. Because I do a lot of testing with human subjects, like putting them inside spacesuits, you have the most varied responses the first time they get inside a spacesuit. You never know exactly what will happen. I had people who have never experienced claustrophobia before. After locking the helmet, they wanted to get out immediately, or the opposite, people dozing off during a test.

Personally, for me, the most amazing experience I had was on board the NASA KC-135 plane, where weightlessness is created during parabolic flights. Since we were born, we have always been supported by something –the floor, a chair, a bed. When you fly in weightlessness, you are supported by nothing and it is an amazing sensation (while disconcerting at first). Flying like Superman is quite a treat.

What’s something people might not know about you or your job?
My job is not only about engineering but physiology as well. You need to learn a lot about space medicine and about the limits we humans can endure. Because of this, I need to stay current on all the latest aerospace physiology papers and research.

What inspired you to start working on spacesuit design, particularly planetary spacesuits.
I was interested in space as long as I can remember. I grew up during the Apollo era, and it inspired me to work in the space program. Regarding spacesuits, they have always amazed me due to their complexity. It is way more than a garment, it is really a miniaturized spacecraft.

You were at the International Astronautical Congress last week. What was the most interesting thing discussed at this year’s congress?
I think the most interesting part was Elon Musk’s plans for Mars colonization. While very ambitious and daring, I think it can be accomplished. If he is successful with his plans, it will have profound implications for humanity since we no longer will be a species living on one planet, but on two.

Why do humans long to go into space?
Curiosity is one of the most important qualities that make us humans. Our thirst for knowledge moved us from Africa and allowed us to populate the planet and beyond. Now, we have the technology needed to explore the universe, and find there the responses and resources we need to assure our survival. I think it is imperative we keep exploring the universe and learn how to protect our species and our planet. Our resources are diminishing here, but in the universe they are plentiful, so the option is clear.