Published: Jan. 9, 2020 By

Abhi Boppana
Abhi Boppana

Astronauts moving in low gravity is one of the most exciting-looking things about space travel. It can also be very painful.

Injuries, abrasions, lacerations, and fingernail delamination are common among astronauts, all merely the result of trying to maneuver in the bulky and awkward space suits they must wear.

Abhi Boppana, a University of Colorado Boulder aerospace PhD student and Smead Scholar, is conducting research to help make one aspect of those suits better: the boots.

“In the past, NASA's goal was simply to enable human spaceflight. That was fine for the Apollo astronauts and on the shuttle, but if we're going to live on Mars or the Moon and be spending a lot of time in spacesuits, it won't work,” Boppana said.

A miracle of technology, spacesuits are more than mere clothes or uniforms astronauts must wear. They are effectively a self-contained space vehicle, supplying oxygen and temperature control as well as protection from the sun’s rays, while still allowing the wearer to move around.

Boppana is researching how the human body shifts and changes while walking with the goal of developing computer models that will allow for the creation of better-fitting spacesuit boots.

The current design of spacesuits creates pressure points on many astronauts. The issue is simple and recognizable to anyone who has worn uncomfortable shoes – they are tolerable for a few hours but become increasingly painful as time goes on. Here on Earth, you can change into different footwear, but that is not a possibility for an astronaut.

Using sophisticated motion cameras, Boppana recently completed a study on the gait of 30 people on a treadmill. He collected scientific data in real-time on exactly how the muscles and bones of the legs and feet change shape while walking. The data will allow the creation of a dynamic 4D digital mold of the foot.

“Sneaker companies already do this, but they're all static molds of the foot in a single position. We're really excited to see what the changes will be with a moving mold,” Boppana said.

Pressure points exerted on the foot by a boot or shoe change throughout the walking stride; footwear that seems comfortable while sitting down may cause blisters or pinching during movement.

Boppana’s work is focused on astronauts, but the research could have broader implications for the development of better-fitting prosthetic limbs, exoskeleton designs, ski boots and other footwear for the general public.

“We're looking at how your body shape changes while you move,” Boppana said. “It's a big part of my PhD: is this method of 4D scanning worth it?”

His work has already drawn outside interest from shoe companies following a presentation he gave at a biomechanics conference earlier this year.

While better-fitting astronaut boots or regular sneakers, for that matter, are primarily about comfort, changes to their design can also have a significant impact on performance.

A prime example is the footwear worn by distance runners. Athlete Eliud Kipchoge recently broke the 2-hour marathon barrier when he completed a controlled 26.2 mile run in 1:59:40. His shoes played a major role.

“The biggest thing were the shoes he was wearing. They were very different,” Boppana said. “It's what companies are working on, to get someone to run using less energy by modifying their shoes.”

Boppana is currently analyzing the data collected by his study with the hope that, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, the next small step for a man may also be a giant leap for spacesuit design.

Profile view of foot morphology
Profile view of foot morphology.