Have Spacesuit, Will Travel
Happy July 4! This is a prototype, the most advanced spacesuit design ever built. Compared to present-day suits it is inherently lighter, safer, more flexible and comfortable. The proven principle of mechanical counter-pressure, rather than the tenuous pressure of air, protects wearers from the vacuum of Space. 60 years ago Chuck Yeager and pilots of the X-1 wore primitive suits based upon this same principle. During the 1960's more suits were built which unfortunately no longer exist. After years of experiments and enough funding to build an aircraft, this system is decades more advanced.
The skintight inner garment is a sandwich of stretchable materiels that zip on like a flightsuit. It is suitable for suborbital and Low Earth Orbit Access, like the "pumpkin suits" used today. Upon exposure to vacuum, the proprietary materiel automatically tightens to compensate. Unlike present-day soft suits, there is no loss of flexibility. The prototype is covered in silver rubber for visibility.
The helmet is adapted from a Russian design. A neck seal isolates the pressurised helmet from the rest of the suit. There are integral heating and defogging elements, and an interface with existing aircraft oxygen systems. The boots and gloves can have independent oxygen lines. A counter-pressure glove is under development. LED readouts are built directly into the forearms, which are reconfigurable to various functions and controls.
For EVA and planetary exploration, the suit can be armoured. The outer pieces on the chest and arms are made of composite materiels that are stronger than steel. The manufacturer guarantees the materiel to 250 degrees fahrenheit, or the highest likely to be encountered in Space. As on present spacecraft, multiple aluminised layers insulate the wearer from extreme cold. The outer armour can be quickly changed to adapt for different environments. When lunar explorers are ready to return home, the outer layers and all that yucky lunar regolith can be left behind on the Moon.
The torso also interfaces with a Portable Life Support System. Because the suit is easy to move in, the wearer consumes barely half the oxygen used in a present-day suit. The cooling requirements are minimal, removing the need for a Liquid Cooling Garment. This can result in reducing the volume of a PLSS by at least 50%, with the same capabilities. (The old PLSS has controls on the chest, with labels printed in reverse because the spacewalker needs a mirror on his arm to see them.)
Even if you managed to make a hole in this suit, there would be no decompression because pressure comes directly from the materiel. In the case of small holes, there would be swelling of the skin directly beneath the hole until blood clotting filled the gap. The wearer just gets a small zit. In addition to being lighter and more comfortable, suits built to this design will be inherently safer than old-fashioned suits.
This system is a force-multiplier for all aspects of human spaceflight. Orion missions will require up to 6 EVA suits. Because there will be no airlock, if one needs to go out the entire crew must suit up and depressurise the ship. Using 10-pound rather than 310-pound suits can save thousand of pounds and million of dollars. Since old Moon suits weigh 165 pounds, this system doubles the weight of people that can be landed. Hatchways and interior spaces can be made smaller. A wearable spacecraft opens new possibilities for travel to and from orbit, eventually removing the need for pressurised hulls.
NASA has issued requirements for a next-generation suit system. They want a single suit system for LEA, EVA and planetary EVA's. In case of an Apollo 13, they want crew to survive 120 hours in the suit with the visor down. They want crewmembers able to dress themselves. Current suits can not fulfill these requirements. You're Going Out In That? It may be unrealistic to expect NASA to buy this suit, but hopefully contractors will take interest in the technology.
The primary purpose of this project is safety of crews. The suit is not yet ready for Space, but is worn to investigate comfort and flexibility. Individual parts need to be tested in vacuum conditions before the suit is worn in flight. No doubt changes will be made as a result of testing, and you will hear more on this blog. After wearing the suit continuously for 12 hours, one can report that it is very comfortable and really cool!