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NASA testing lighter space suits for asteroid work

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December 15, 2013

The new suit undergoing neutral buoyancy testing (Image: NASA)

The new suit undergoing neutral buoyancy testing (Image: NASA)

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Sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward. NASA is carrying out initial tests on a new, lighter spacesuit for use by the crew of the Orion spacecraft that is currently under development. The tests are being carried out in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas on a modified version of the pumpkin orange suit normally worn by Space Shuttle crews during liftoff and re-entry and is a return to a space suit design of the 1960s.

The Orion program has posed something of a wardrobe problem for NASA. When the space agency started looking at developing a new spacesuit for the 21st century, it had the now-cancelled Constellation spacecraft in mind. The original plan was to go with either armor-like hard suits or something along the lines of the hard/soft hybrid Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suits deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) for extravehicular activities (EVA).

The hard and semi-hard suits, such as the Z-1 prototype, are bulky with lots of hard shells, bearings, hatches, and other components. This isn’t a problem on the station or in a large vehicle like the Space Shuttle or the Constellation, but when the Constellation program was cancelled in favor of the Orion, all that hardware had to go out the porthole. Orion is more of an upgraded Apollo Command Module and space will be at a premium. There isn’t room for a specialized EVA suit that looks like it was designed for jousting with laser beams.

ACES suit being used on mock up the Orion (Image: NASA)

That’s a stumbling block because NASA wants to use Orion to send a manned mission to collect samples from an asteroid relocated to an orbit near Earth. This means the Orion crew needs spacesuits for the EVAs, which means a different kind of space suit is required.

NASA’s solution is to take a step backwards. Instead of having one suit for launch and reentry operations, and another for EVAs, the space agency wants a multi-purpose spacesuit that can be worn for both flight operations and for working outside the spacecraft, as was the case up to the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

The new suit is a harkening back to and an evolution of the suit worn by Ed White during his historic spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission in 1965. When the US space program started, the first “spacesuit” worn by the Mercury astronauts was a modified Mark IV high-altitude suit painted silver. For the Gemini missions, a new suit was developed that was an advanced version of the suit worn by SR-71 Blackbird pilots as they flew on the edge of space at supersonic speeds.

The new design evolved from the suit Ed White wore during his spacewalk on Gemini 4 in 196...
The new design evolved from the suit Ed White wore during his spacewalk on Gemini 4 in 1965 (Image: NASA)

Both of these were suits designed mainly to protect the wearer in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure. Since the astronaut spent most of his time sitting down, and would certainly be doing so in an emergency, the suits didn’t allow much in the way of mobility when inflated.

The biggest advance came when the Gemini astronauts started doing spacewalks and the suits had to be modified with more flexible joints and gauntlets, so the astronauts wouldn’t be floating around looking like crouching balloons, and could get in and out of the spacecraft with a minimum of effort and cursing.

When Apollo came along, the designers had to make something that someone could actually walk in and get some work done in while inflated. That worked fine for the moonwalks, Skylab, the Space Shuttle program, and the ISS, as suits became bulkier and incorporated more hard components to provide more mobility and a one-size-fits-all design.

The tests include moving through hatches (Image: NASA)

The new Orion suit is based on the Advanced Crew Escape System (ACES). Like the Gemini spacesuits, this too is a development on the flight suit for the SR-71 Blackbird. Notable for its distinct pumpkin orange color, it was worn by Shuttle crews from 1994 on. Its current purpose is to protect the astronaut in the event of an emergency, to provide life support for a very limited time, and to carry emergency gear, such as parachutes, flotation devices, radios, and survival kits.

According to NASA, the advantages of the ACES suit are that it has over 30 years of experience behind it, is low cost, the infrastructure for supporting it is already in place, and it’s designed to be easily upgraded. Though it will be modified for working in hard vacuum for extended periods, the new suit will look very similar to the current ACES, except that it will be white instead of orange.

The main modifications to the suit will be to make it more suitable for regular work instead of just emergencies. It will need to operate with a life support backpack and the systems on Orion, operate for hours instead of minutes, and it will need more flexibility in the elbows, wrists, and other high mobility joints. The trick will be to do so without introducing too many hard points that might injure the wearer on take off or hinder an escape in an emergency.

An ACES suit (Image: NASA)
An ACES suit (Image: NASA)

"The shell of them is very much the same, and to the casual user you may not even notice the difference, but internally we modified them to work with the plumbing inside Orion," says Dustin Gohmert, Crew Survival Systems Manager at Johnson.

The neutral buoyancy tests and others involving dangling from harnesses and crawling through Orion mockups are designed to assess the suitability of the ACES suit for EVAs and to find out what modifications need to be made. This is a bit tricky because it's a constant tradeoff between efficiency in moving around, which favors shells and bearing rings, and as an emergency suit for walking to the launch pad and being worn during flight, which benefit from everything being soft. The tests will also help engineers to evaluate spacewalking techniques, such as getting through hatches, moving between spacecraft and asteroid, and handling tools.

"We're stepping back to our heritage to be able to use one suit for multiple tasks," says Gohmert.

The video below shows part of the water tank tests.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
7 Comments

Leave it to NASA to think going to the asteroids in a reentry capsule is a good idea.

What is needed is a ship assembled in orbit and meant for more than one trip.

Slowburn
15th December, 2013 @ 11:11 pm PST

I don't think the ship needs to be assembled in orbit. (If by assembled you mean manufactured.) But absolutely, however it was manufactured/assembled we need to have earth orbit vehicles which are able to leave our atmosphere, process the asteroids, and bring people back to a space station.

People wonder how we will bring back the "rare earths" to our planet and I'm always confused by this question. The material is out there and our future is no longer confined to this planet. Mining these asteroids will help us build station and ships in space.

Gilbert Midonnet
16th December, 2013 @ 10:02 am PST

They needed to fund the Bio-Suit.

Chishiki
16th December, 2013 @ 10:41 am PST

dido slowburn, or at least an inflatable habitat with a more robust service module.

frogola
16th December, 2013 @ 11:33 am PST

The future of humans in space is bright...and it doesn't involve NASA.

Bureaucracies are too slow these days, while private companies always have profit in mind, and push hard for innovation.

Companies like Space X will shine, as will Bigelow Aerospace, and others.

The future of NASA is probes to distant planets, asteroids, & moons.

It doesn't surprise me at all that NASA's best answer for a space suit is to simply modify an old design. They lack initiative & vision.

Derek Howe
16th December, 2013 @ 05:43 pm PST

@ Gilbert Midonnet

To get to the point that manufacturing a deep space ship in orbit is the most cost effective way of doing it we first need to build deep space ships to extract space based resources. Therefor assemble is the correct word.

The cost would not be too bad if done rationally using components from launch vehicles; especially if they were modified before launch. Add a hatch and propellant tanks easily become living or work space particularly if the rocket burned LH/LOX but the kerosene used as rocket fuel evaporates without leaving a residue so cleaning it out is just a matter of opening the hatch, letting the sun warm the tank and flushing with a bit of nitrogen. The hardest part is refilling the propellent tanks with propellent scavenged from other launchers.

If using an ion rocket nitrogen might be the reaction mass of choice because you can extract nitrogen from storable liquid propellents (Hydrazine/Mixed oxides of nitrogen) leaving fuel for a high acceleration engine or oxygen for breathing. for that matter I can't think of a reason that you couldn't use hydrogen in an ion engine as well.

Slowburn
16th December, 2013 @ 05:56 pm PST

mass produce & apply to all EVA suits alone, radical

a spacesuit for the masses into Space.

Stephen N Russell
16th December, 2013 @ 08:33 pm PST
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