NASA’s aging stock of spacesuits is coming under great scrutiny as the space agency investigates the near-drowning of an astronaut. Wednesday, an investigation board released its report on the July 2013 incident involving a water leak in Italian astronaut’s Luca Parmitano’s helmet. More than a liter of liquid pooled around Parmitano’s eyes, nose and ears, before he could get to safety inside the International Space Station airlock. The report revealed that managers misdiagnosed a similar leak one week earlier.
With an ongoing presence aboard the ISS, plans for capturing asteroids, the first mission to Mars and even a return to the Moon, NASA will need a new spacesuit to make the journey.
The space agency won’t have to look very far for ideas, according to NASA engineer Cody Kelly. Last week, he spoke to a room of science and math students at Tyler Junior College, explaining his ongoing work as part of the Crew Survival Engineering Team.
Kelly said NASA is modifying its Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) for future missions of the new Orion spacecraft, relying on time-tested technology to ensure the survival of astronauts.
Often referred to as the ‘pumpkin suit’ for its bright orange color, ACES was originally designed for launch and re-entry during the Space Shuttle program. The next-generation ACES will not only be worn by astronauts inside the Orion capsule, but the design team is also working to modify the suits for use on space walks, or extravehicular activity (EVA). It would replace the current procedure of donning a separate Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), the iconic white spacesuit used for venturing outside the now-retired Space Shuttle or International Space Station.
Utilizing only one spacesuit during future missions will save precious space inside the spacecraft and cut weight during launch and landing, saving fuel and taxpayer money.
The engineering team’s work is truly cutting edge — one of their space suit prototypes was named one of the “best inventions of 2012” by Time Magazine. “We ask questions like, ‘how do we put a camel bag into a survival suit?” Kelly said. “We design prototypes, then try it out by testing parts and refining designs. We also integrate hardware to see how it works together.
In early February, two modified ACES suits were tested for the first time in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Houston’s Johnson Space Center. The 6.2 million gallon pool simulates a micro gravity environment, which mimics what astronauts will experience in space.
The modified ACES uses a closed circulation system to recycle the air breathed by astronauts. Kelley’s current area of focus is the Portable Life Support System (PLSS), which is being redesigned for use on any next-gen spacesuit. A new low-pressure system should make the suit lighter, flexible and more efficient.
The modified ACES suit could also see a Gore-Tex exterior which allows body heat to escape, while a pressure garment would keep it airtight. In the event of a water ditching, the astronaut’s suit would be equipped with a life preserver, parachute and harness, emergency oxygen and survival gear.Kelly said the agency will also be collaborating with crew survivability experts in the private sector, as NASA has plans to contract with companies like SpaceX or Sierra Nevada to transport crews to the International Space Station.
Independent engineers are also working on next-generation spacesuits that feature robotics-assisted gloves and an exo-skeleton structures to augment muscle mass.