High-Tech, Low Maintenance
Reminiscent of the businessman who
whispered "plastics" to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," a new
buzzword in aeronautics may be "spacesuits."
Although they aren't ready for prime time, engineers at Johnson
Space Center are working on the one piece of equipment that
protects and maintains the health and well-being of astronauts who
may spend months at a time far above the earth's atmosphere.
This, all going on behind the scenes while all the attention
focuses on NASA's new spaceship and planned missions to the moon
and Mars, reports the AP.
Although it's too early in the game to know what the new suits
will look like, NASA is looking for high-tech and low
"Finding the right balance is always going to be a challenge,"
said veteran astronaut Jeff Williams, who has donned both the
complex American suit and the spare Russian suit. "It's
US suits may be easier to work in for long periods of time, but
their complexity means more maintenance, while the
one-size-fits-all Russian suits are used a few times and thrown
away, but not as easy to work in. A conundrum to be sure.
Developing new suits is certainly easier than the slide rules
and drafting table used in the Apollo era; computers allow suits to
be designed and re-designed before any hardware comes into
"There's a lot more capable tools and technology to get the job
done - a lot more knowledge, as well - so we can capitalize on
them," said Joe Kosmo, who was involved in the design, development,
and testing of suits from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and
NASA's priority is to make the next spacesuit smaller and
lighter - halving the 200-pound weight that Apollo astronauts
carried with their suits and life support backpack.
To accomplish this, new, lightweight composite materials and
smaller electronics will come into play. NASA also wants their
charges to be able to move around more easily in their suits.
Terry Hill, who's developing the new spacesuit, recalled the
robotic-like hops of the Apollo astronauts broadcasting from the
moon, hops that every American alive at the time recalls.
"Mostly, that was because of mobility," he said. "They just
didn't have it."
The new spacesuit will be usable for launch, at the space
station, and on the moon and Mars. Hill envisions swapping out the
top part of the suit to fit the mission's needs, a feature he hopes
will save money and cargo weight, because astronauts won't have to
pack several suits. Shuttle astronauts wear bright orange suits for
launch and re-entry while carrying on white spacewalking suits.
Some other "must-have" features for tomorrow's space suits
include the ability to withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures,
to shield radiation, and to function on very low power, as the
spacesuit's oxygen-rich atmosphere can quickly turn sparks into
NASA plans to award a contract in a year or so, produce the
first prototypes by 2010, and certify the suit by 2012 - in time
for the new spaceship Orion's maiden voyage by 2014.
Hill declined to discuss the cost of the new suits because a
production contract has yet to be awarded. "Nothing's cheap."