The Making of a Space Suit
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NASA has told the crew of the shuttle Discovery that their craft is safe to bring back to Earth on Monday. Additional space walks will not be needed after this week's dramatic venture to remove some loose fabric from the heat shield. That space walk was made possible in part by an extravehicular mobility unit, otherwise known as a space suit.
Mr. ED FRANCIS (Vice President, Hamilton Sundstrand): A space suit in its simplest terms is a one-man spaceship.
INSKEEP: Ed Francis is a vice president at Hamilton Sundstrand, the company that makes this $12 million suit, which on Earth weighs 240 pounds.
Mr. FRANCIS: An astronaut needs to work in one of the most hazardous environments there is, and that's the vacuum of space, and do so for about eight hours at a time and be completely sustained during that time. We also have to protect him from things like micrometeorites, so...
Mr. FRANCIS: Micrometeorites are small objects that fly in space below the, I'll say, radar screen of NASA. And, you know, it's always possible that one could impact a suit, so...
INSKEEP: Does that actually happen during space walks or has it happened?
Mr. FRANCIS: It has never happened. We hope it never happens. But if you had a minimal hit, we do provide for the astronaut to get emergency oxygen and get back to--and keep the suit as pressurized as we can and get back to the airlock.
INSKEEP: How have these suits evolved over time?
Mr. FRANCIS: It's been a very gradual evolution. They are a modular suit, so we have--you know, basically, you have a hard-up, or torso, and then you have--which attaches arms and legs to it and the helmet and a personal life support system, which is the backpack you see. The most important improvement, I think, that is relevant to this week's space walk was the improvement we undertook with NASA several years ago to the gloves. Those gloves allow the astronaut to be able to move his hand much easier. They're heated. This week alone, each astronaut has done almost 20 hours of work in the suit. So these improved gloves have allowed astronauts to do the many hours of work they do. And they're each individually tailored to the astronaut themselves. The astronaut actually does a mold of his hand and then we produce the glove.
INSKEEP: Is that true of the whole suit?
Mr. FRANCIS: No. Each component of the suit comes in various sizes. And, in fact, that's a major difference between our suit and the Russian suit that the cosmonauts wear. Their suit is basically a one-size-fits-all. It has minor changes that can be made to it. But if you met a Russian cosmonaut and he was more than 6', he's exceptional. And if he's less than 5'5", he's exceptional. They all seem to fall in that 5'9" to 5'10" area, not only for the suits but they--also for the way they fit in their spacecraft, which are also very restrictive.
INSKEEP: Now you mentioned that you need to provide everything that an astronaut would need for up to eight hours in space at a time. The obvious requirement is oxygen, but what else is there?
Mr. FRANCIS: Well, water, food. They do have a small snack that they can actually eat that's inside the helmet. We actually...
INSKEEP: How do they get at that?
Mr. FRANCIS: Well, it's basically on the side of the helmet and they have to move their head inside the helmet to eat it. Maybe not so obvious, one of the things you can't do is you can't get your hand inside the helmet, so you have to be able to move your head to drink. You have to be able to move your head to eat.
INSKEEP: What's the snack?
Mr. FRANCIS: You know, I don't--it's like an energy bar-type thing. I don't--I've never had one myself, so I can't tell you exactly what it is, but..
INSKEEP: I would think, you know, as the vice president and general manager of the company, they'd make you eat a few of those.
Mr. FRANCIS: Well, we don't make the snacks. We just make the suit.
INSKEEP: And I guess it's probably not in a wrapper or anything like that. Little problem.
Mr. FRANCIS: No, a wrapper on the snack would be a real problem. But we do provide water. We also, obviously, have to provide to remove the water from the environment. You know, otherwise, humidity would build up on the inside of the helmet.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of a delicate way to ask this next question. You did refer to removing water from the environment. Well, I'm thinking, you know, six, seven, eight hours in space, you might have to relieve yourself.
Mr. FRANCIS: Yes. It's very similar to wha--you can imagine a Depends-type situation.
INSKEEP: Even though you've been through more than a hundred of these space walks, is there ever a moment when your heart is in your throat?
Mr. FRANCIS: Well, yes. I think anytime we do something different or new, you always worry about what you don't know. Wednesday, for instance, when we did the space walk, we had four scenarios, three backups to the removal of the problem part on the aircraft, and we never got into the other three scenarios because the first one worked. So, yeah, there are times when we worry, but very few times when we actually get into a situation that we haven't thought through. And fortunately, that's always the way it's been on these.
INSKEEP: We've been speaking with Ed Francis. He's the vice president and general manager of the Space, Land & Sea division--boy, that's a lot of ground you cover--at Hamilton Sundstrand. Thanks very much.
Mr. FRANCIS: You're welcome.