Mix 'n match space suits

It used to be an event for which only custom-designed clothing would do -- exclusive, by invitation only, and guaranteed to draw the eyes of the world. But when the next American walks in space, he'll be wearing an "off the rack" suit.

As the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prepares for the maiden flight of the space shuttle, scheduled for no earlier than April 7, it is trumpeting the savings it has achieved in the nation's newest space program. One need look no further, NASA officials claim, than the space suit and life-support system developed for the shuttle astronauts.

In comparing the shuttle space suit to earlier ones, NASA chief of crew systems Walter W. Guy says: "It does exactly the same things, but it is constructed completely differently." The impetus for the new design was the need to save money, he says.

To the layman, the shuttle suit does not look much different from earlier styles -- a big globelike helmet on top of an inflated pair of overalls that leave not a trace of skin uncovered. It is white with an emblem of the American flag providing an accent of color. It weighs about 250 pounds.

However, the new suit is considerably different from the earlier Apollo version. To begin with, there are far fewer of the shuttle suits. Like the shuttle spacecraft, the suits are designed to be reusable.

NASA will need only 44 suits over the next 15 years for the shuttle program, which is expected to fly hundreds of missions. In the Apollo moon program, on the other hand, there were only 17 missions but 201 space suits. There were several suits for each astronaut, some used as backups and many used solely for testing.

The basic function of a space suit is to provide oxygen, a comfortable temperature, and a pressurized environment for the astronaut. The life- support system carried on the astronaut's back circulates oxygen and water through the suit. Carbon dioxide is flushed into the backpack and absorbed by lithium hydroxide.

On shuttle flights, the suit is worn only if an astronaut is going outside the vehicle. During Apollo missions the suit, minus the backpack, was worn in the vehicle. When an Apollo astronaut wanted to leave the spacecraft, lots of external hoses and lines had to be connected to join the suit and the backpack.

The shuttle suit is integrated with the life-support system and so it has a much cleaner design with no external connections. It also gives the astronaut much more mobility. The suit saves money by being manufactured in components. It is really a three-piece outfiet, with a helmet, a hard upper torso, and lower torso. It is built to fit men and women. The lower torso comes in two sizes; the upper in four; and the gloves have nine different fittings. For the helmet, one size fits all.

This variety of sizes allows for "mix and match," notes Mr. Guy. The astronauts can mix components of varying sizes, and the different pieces can be used over and over again by different people.

The Apollo suits were custom-designed -- each suit was made to fit an individual astronaut. "It was very easy to know which suit belonged to whom because they had their names in the glvoes," says Guy.

The cost per suit appears to be higher for the shuttle version. It carries a price tag of $400,000, while the Apollo suit costs about $100,000. However, the Apollo suit was designed in 1964 and the effects of inflation explain much of the increase in price, Guy asserts.

The far fewer number of suits needed for the shuttle provide the real cost savings. And the design has been improved. "The suit is more efficient, and it can be made in fewer man-hours," says Guy.

On the debut flight of the shuttle the space suit will be used only in case of an emergency. While sitting in the vehicle, the astronauts will wear US Air Force high-altitude flight suits in case they need to eject.

The space suit will be donned only if the astronauts need to go outside the columbia shuttle during orbit. When the shuttle reaches orbit, the payload bay doors will be opened to dispel heat from inside the vehicle. If the doors do not close properly, pilot Robert L. Crippen will need to take a "space walk" to correct the problem, putting the new suit to its first test in space.

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