Clark Company Develops First Space Suit
April 5, 2010 -
History has been made today as Red Bull Stratos unveiled the first space
suit ever to be produced by David Clark Company for a non-governmental
space program. The Red Bull Stratos science team has also revealed the
pressure helmet, which with the suit will serve as Felix Baumgartner's
sole life-support system when he steps off his capsule at 120,000 feet
to attempt a record-breaking freefall from the edge of space.
next-generation gear was manufactured by Massachusetts-based David Clark
Company Incorporated, which has pioneered air and space crew protective
equipment since 1941, including launch entry suits for Space Shuttle
astronauts and the iconic suit that United States Air Force Colonel
(Ret.) Joe Kittinger wore on his historic Excelsior III jump in 1960.
Full-Pressure Suit Is Necessary, in the hostile stratospheric
environment Felix plans to traverse, hazards include temperatures as
cold as minus 56 degrees Celsius; an environment with too little oxygen
to sustain human life; and air pressure so low that decompression
sickness and ebullism -- a condition in which blood "boils" with
life-threatening vapor bubbles -- are pervasive dangers.
ascent beneath a 30-million-cubic-foot polyethylene balloon filled with
helium, Felix will depend on a sealed capsule to provide a pressurized
environment; but once he depressurizes the vessel and opens the door to
step off, his full-pressure suit and helmet -- what engineers call a
"Pilot Protective Assembly," or PPA -- will be his only life-support
system until he reaches the safety of the lower atmosphere.
During his ascent beneath a 30-million-cubic-foot polyethylene balloon filled with helium, Felix will depend on a sealed capsule to provide a pressurized environment; but once he depressurizes the vessel and opens the door to step off, his full-pressure suit and helmet -- what engineers call a "Pilot Protective Assembly," or PPA -- will be his only life-support system until he reaches the safety of the lower atmosphere.
|Felix Baumgartner, after landing in the Mojave desert during high altitude helicopter skydives, tests the mobility in the Red Bull Stratos pressure suit outer shell as he prepares for his 120,000 foot freefall attempt in 2010. Photo credit: Sven Hoffmann for Red Bull Media House|
|By attempting to break the speed of sound in freefall, Felix will be trailblazing a velocity that future astronauts and aviators may have to face: although Felix will need to optimize his flight posture to achieve Mach 1, astronauts bailing out from significantly higher altitudes would likely attain supersonic speed involuntarily. Members of the Red Bull Stratos science team expect that the rigidity and protection of a full-pressure suit is necessary to provide benefits at such unprecedented speed, but effectively utilizing the protective assembly will also present challenges.|
The Challenges of
a Full-Pressure Suit in Freefall, although a full-pressure suit is
essential for survival at high altitudes, such "space" suits have never
been qualified for the kind of controlled freefall that Felix
Baumgartner must execute to safely return to Earth from the edge of
space. The challenges include:
• Restricted mobility: Skydivers are trained to use their bodies to control freefall, making subtle midair positioning adjustments to significantly affect flight. Control is especially critical at high altitude, where rapid spinning is a potentially lethal possibility. The pressurized suit makes some physical adjustments difficult and others impossible.
• Restricted vision: The helmet that protects Felix's head also restricts his vision, a challenge that can be exacerbated if the atmospheric conditions, or perspiration, cause fogging or icing. If Felix can't see, he won't be able to launch the jump.
Reduced tactile sensation: Felix's hands must be enclosed in
pressurized gloves. In his full-pressure suit, Felix will find it more
difficult not only to see critical components of his equipment -- like
parachute handles or tangled lines -- but also to even feel them.
Thanks to its
pioneering work in air and space crew protective equipment design, David
Clark Company was able to model the Red Bull Stratos full-pressure suit
and helmet on suits already in use by pilots of high-altitude
reconnaissance aircraft. However, Felix's PPA was custom made to his
measurements and special modifications, including enhanced flexibility,
have been incorporated to accommodate freefall demands. Felix's suit
will serve as the prototype for next-generation pressure suits.
Mike Todd, the Red
Bull Stratos Life Support Engineer, describes Felix's PPA as "an
artificial atmosphere." The suit's exterior is made of a material that
is both fire-retardant and an insulator against extreme cold. Inside,
the "bladder" (which will be filled with gases to provide pressurization
before Felix exits the capsule), is composed of a selectively permeable
material surrounded by link netting. When the bladder is inflated, it
will provide pressure at 3.5 pounds per square inch -- sufficient to
prevent the expansion caused by ebullism. An integrated control valve,
the "brain" of the suit, maintains pressure automatically at various
The shell of the
helmet is molded from composite materials. Its visor, which is
distortion free in the critical vision area, has an integrated heating
circuit that must warm it enough to avert fogging and icing, yet not
melt it -- a function doubly challenged by (1) a stratospheric
environment that lacks air to draw away heat and (2) a potentially
supersonic freefall that will encounter rapid changes in temperature.
The helmet will also supply Felix with 100 percent oxygen (from
cylinders he'll wear), and it includes a microphone and earphones for
communication with the
Suit Findings, "Every time someone jumps a system like this, there's
something to learn," says Daniel R. McCarter, Program Manager for David
Clark Company. Initial tests conducted in wind tunnels, low-pressure
chambers and 25,000-foot skydives indicate that while it's important to
assess the pressure suit itself, the key to optimizing its functionality
lies in seeing how the suit works with the other mission components,
including the parachute rig.
• Low-pressure chamber: The integrity of the personal life support system was confirmed; but, like many astronauts and aviators, Felix found the near sensory deprivation of the suit unsettling and had to accustom himself to a feeling of isolation.
• Wind-tunnel tests: The team was strongly encouraged to learn that when Felix maneuvered to the streamlined "delta" position he will use in his stratospheric freefall, instability minimized and airflow smoothed, despite the unaccustomed bulk of the suit.
25,000-foot helicopter jumps: It was found that, due to the
suit's sensory limitations, Felix couldn't easily distinguish the
handles of his parachutes -- a potentially dangerous situation. The
parachute rig has since been modified to make the handles
distinguishable by touch even through the pressure suit fabric, and
mirrors have been added to Felix's gloves to enable him to see his
equipment despite restricted vision in the helmet.
"This is why test
jumps are so valuable, because you are always discovering new things,"
Felix notes. "On the ground, everything looks cool, but the picture
changes when you're in freefall. Especially when you're the one in the
Red Bull Stratos
is a mission to the edge of space. Pilot Felix Baumgartner will ascend
to the stratosphere in an attempt to launch a freefall jump that would
see him become the first person to break the speed of sound with the
human body. The data captured by this mission and its team of
world-leading scientists promises new standards in aerospace safety,
expanding the boundaries of human flight.
all-access documentary about the Red Bull Stratos project is being
produced by the BBC together with National Geographic. A few weeks after
the jump in 2010, the feature-length film, "SPACE DIVE," will premiere
on BBC2 in the
David Clark Company has pioneered air and space crew protective equipment design, development and infrastructure since 1941, with products ranging from anti-G suits to space suits. David Clark Company's tradition of providing crew protective equipment for leading-edge, manned aerospace programs continues into the future, as their designers apply their expertise to present and foreseeable needs, particularly in the areas of acceleration and high-altitude protection.
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