Episode 76: Dava Newman on getting humans to Mars and creating the next-generation spacesuit

// Nov 8, 2018

Today’s episode features Dr. Dava Newman, the first female engineer to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator. Dava  is currently the Apollo Professor of Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For more than 20 years, she has worked passionately to figure out what it will take to put humans on Mars. She is perhaps best known, however, for developing a next-generation spacesuit called the BioSuit, a slim-fitting compression suit that’s designed to make it easier for astronauts to move around on lunar surfaces.

Dava joined the faculty at MIT in 1993 and served as NASA’s deputy administrator from 2015 to 2017. She also is on the faculty of the Harvard–MIT Health, Sciences, and Technology department. As the director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program from 2003 to 2015, she led the institute’s largest multidisciplinary graduate research program with more 1,200 alumni.

She is the author of “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design,” an introductory engineering textbook, and has published more than 300 papers. Links to Dava’s book, papers and bio, as well as videos of the BioSuit, are included at the bottom of the show notes.

In today’s interview with Dava, we discuss:

[00:03:01] Her memories of watching the Apollo Moon landings as a child.

[00:06:36] How Dava made the Notre Dame women’s varsity basketball team as a walk-on.

[00:09:49] Her work over the past 20 years to get people on Mars.

[00:11:19] Dava’s thinking behind the design of a slim-fitting spacesuit.

00:15:12] The physiological monitoring systems she would like to see incorporated into next-generation spacesuits.

[00:26:00] How she thought the call from the White House about the NASA position was a prank.

[00:27:06] Dava’s takeaways from her four space missions to measure astronaut performance in microgravity.

[00:28:41] Her transition back to MIT after her stint as NASA deputy administrator.

[00:38:42] Dava’s advice for today’s young aspiring scientists and engineers, a group she says will become known as the Mars generation.

Show notes:

[00:02:30] Dawn begins the interview by asking Dava to elaborate on comments she has made about having the best job in the world.

[00:03:01] Dawn asks Dava about growing up in Montana during the Apollo years and watching the moon landings on TV.

[00:03:43] Dava talks about her years in middle school and high school.

[00:04:17] Ken asks Dava about her decision to attend Notre Dame.

[00:05:40] Dava talks about how she was often the only women in her science and engineering classes back in the early 1980s.

[00:06:36] Dawn asks Dava about making the Notre Dame women’s varsity basketball team as a walk-on.

[00:08:30] Dawn asks Dava about her decision to write an introductory aerospace engineering textbook shortly after accepting a faculty position at MIT.

[00:09:49] Dava talks about how her goal of getting people to Mars has been a passion of hers for the past 20 years.

[00:11:19] Ken points out that Dava is perhaps best known for designing a slim-fitting spacesuit call the BioSuit. Ken asks Dava what motivated her to redesign spacesuits.

[00:13:38] Dawn asks Dava what human bio-energetic requirements will look like for lunar surface operations and how they differ from current EVA operations?

[00:15:12] Dawn asks Dava about the physiological monitoring systems she would like to see incorporated into next generation spacesuits.

[00:17:09] Dava talks about how spacesuit design has faced significant biomedical challenges, particularly for women.

[00:21:30] Ken mentions that Dava wrote the proposal for the BioSuit while on a sailing trip during a sabbatical, and follows up by asking her to tell the story of how she and her husband became stranded in the middle of the Pacific.

[00:26:00] Dava explains that when she got a call from the White House about becoming the deputy administrator for NASA, she thought the phone call was a prank.

[00:27:06] Dawn points out that Dava has flown four space experiments to measure astronaut performance in microgravity. Dawn asks Dava what stands out in terms of those experiences.

[00:28:41] Dava talks about her transition back to MIT after her time as NASA deputy administrator.

[00:31:09] Ken asks Dava for her thoughts on the Space Launch System, a space shuttle-derived super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle.

[00:32:21] Ken talks about InSight, a robotic lander that has been designed to study the interior of Mars and is expected to land on the planet in time for Thanksgiving. Ken asks Dava to give an overview of the mission and how it might lead to a new understanding of Mars.

[00:35:05] Dava talks about how in addition to Mars, teaching is another one of her passions and that she is particularly interested in getting more women and people of color into science.

[00:37:29] Dawn asks Dava about her role models who helped guide her career path.

[00:38:42] Dava ends the interview talking about how young people today, especially teen-agers, will become known as the Mars generation, the first generation to walk on Mars, and offers advice for aspiring scientists and engineers.


Dava’s MIT bio

Dava’s NASA bio

Dava’s Wikipedia page

TED video: How to create a Spacesuit

Adam Savage interview with Dava

Amazon: “Interactive Aerospace Engineering and Design”

Learn more about IHMC

STEM-Talk homepage 

Ken Ford bio

Dawn Kernagis bio