You're Going Out in That?
Check out the new Carnival of Space. You will see a fascinating article by Pamela Gay on interstellar jets, Brian Dunbar on Space Solar Power, even a few words on "dark energy."
Last week we saw a poor astronaut candidate Eaten Alive by the Mark III spacesuit. This suit is currently the favourite of NASA's Advanced Department. Like many artist's concepts it looks great in animations but is very cumbersome in reality. Seeing a need, NASA has solicited proposals from private industry.
Because very few companies are equipped to mass-produce spacesuits, participation is so far limited to the companies already making NASA suits. NASA has issued very specific requirements. They have specifically requested a single suit system adaptable for Low Earth Access, zero-G EVA, lunar and Mars excursions. They want to include water egress scenarios. They want a suit that one person could put on unassisted. So far the contractor community has not fulfilled NASA's wishes.
ILC Dover builds the Extravehicular Mobility Unit used in shuttle EVA's. The EMU weighs 310 pounds on Earth and is quite difficult to move in. Their I-1 suit has the most in common with the Mark III, with rotating bearings for mobility and a waist closure. Some weight has been saved by replacing heavy bearings with soft joints. This suit weighs more than 65 pounds not counting a PLSS backpack. It is difficult to imagine crews willingly wearing this during launch or descent.
The David Clark Company makes the orange "pumpkin suit" used for shuttle launch and Earth return. In an emergency involving decompression, air pressure in an inflated suit makes movement difficult. This is one more distraction for pilots struggling to control the vehicle during an abort scenario. This D-1 suit adds external cables to hopefully counteract the stiffness of pressurised joints. Unless this problem is solved, this suit would not be practical for EVA especially on the Moon or Mars.
Other players will shortly enter the stage. A startup called Orbital Outfitters, with experience building prop suits for many motion pictures, has recently signed a contract with private XCOR. The appearance of their suit is a closely guarded secret, but they promise it will be Hollywood-slick. Award of a contract for next-generation spacesuits depends the Constellation Program, which is slipping further into the future.
Despite the organisation's shortcomings, NASA personnel have always been dedicated to Space. They see a need to think outside the box, which has led to the Centennial Challenges Program. One of those challenges was the Astronaut Glove Competition, which this month awarded 200,000 dollars to inventor Peter Homer. A separate Challenge for a "Mechanical Counter-Pressure" glove had no entrants at all. NASA sees the need for new technology; it is up to citizens to answer it.