Astronauts Lose Fingernails Due to Bad Glove Design

A new study has indicated that astronauts with wider hands are more likely to have their fingernails fall off after working for a significant time in space suit gloves. Other fingernail traumas and hand injuries are a very common problem among those of us who walk in space for a living.

According to Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of this study:

“The glove in general is absolutely one of the main engineering challenges… After all, you have almost as many degrees of freedom in your hand as in the rest of your whole body.”

The gloves function in much the same manner as the space suit; that is, within the airless, natural world of space they both must imitate the pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere. The gloves, like the suit, are gas-pressurized and very rigid, which renders extravehicular activities (also known as EVA) such as space walks challenging, to say the very least.

In the past, many astronaut injuries sustained during spacewalks were hand-related. The constant stress on the fingertips, which occurs during space walks can cause intense pain and may lead to fingernail delamination, a condition in which the nails detach from their nail beds. In addition, moisture inside the glove can cause infections in the exposed nail beds.

Up until now, all that could be done was to apply dressings and keep nails short. According once again to Newman: “I have heard of a couple people who’ve removed their fingernails in advance of an EVA.”

More comfortable space gloves are in the works and this study was meant to help that fact along. The data, which analyzed hand measurements among injured astronauts and a non-injured control group, showed no statistical relationship between finger length and the instances of nails falling off, but it did uncover the interesting fact that fingernail trauma was a bigger problem for people with a wider hand circumference.

The research is slated for the October issue of the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Magazine Peter Homer, founder of the commercial space suit design company Flagsuit LLC and two-time winner of  NASA’s Astronaut Glove Challenge, believes that the solution lies in the ability to custom fit each set of gloves for the hands of each specific astronaut. He said:

“… The airtight inner layer for the current glove design is custom-made via hand casts, laser scanning, computer modeling, and special machining techniques. But the outer layer is built …more like a small, medium and large situation…It costs around a hundred thousand dollars up front to custom fit the airtight bladder. In my opinion that also needs to apply to the outer layer, which really gives the glove its shape.”

Newman believes that customization may not go far enough and that mechanical counter-pressure or robotic amplification inside the glove may ease the pressure.

Whichever way they go, there is hope for healthy fingernails in space.

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