Space Suit of the Week

I’m such a liar; we aren’t even looking at a space suit this week. But what this should really be called sounds dumb: the space suit precursor of patented naval redundancy engineering… of the week. Let’s just call it the Patented Engineering by the Navy Intended for Space (P.E.N.I.S.) of the week.

I’m still a liar. The above suit was never intended for elevations beyond the airspace traversed by high-altitude jets (called uncontrolled airspace at elevations above 60,000 feet), and at such altitudes air is so thin that calling it airspace is really just another lie. The suit above is designed to protect pilots flying around in such an air(less)space.  And yet, the suit is redundant by design. The primary means of protection from the dangerously low ambient pressure at 70,000 feet is the pressurized cabin. But things can go wrong, so the protection from decompression is duplicated by means of a pressure suit like the one above.

The idea to engineer “back up plans” into a system is called redundancy. Interestingly enough, in some vital systems aboard the space shuttle, components are not merely duplicated but triplicated. This means that three independent components would have to fail sequentially for the overall system to fail.

What began as a redundant protection for pilots became the basis for the suits worn by astronauts during the Mercury mission and for Gemini mission. It is absolutely insane how quickly the technology that enabled us to fly higher and higher evolved. Just 66 years before Neil Armstrong took a small step, the Wright brothers took a wobbly, but controlled flight across some field in North Carolina. In the six and a half decades between the two events, we learned how to not only travel the nearly 240,000 miles to the moon, but how to leave our biosphere and return safely to it.

And P.E.N.I.S. helped.


P.S. Big thanks to Matt for suggesting this week’s suit! And big thanks to John, a friend who attended the Air Force Academy and helped explain airspace terminology to me. He also reminded me that any airspace above 10,000 feet is dangerous.

September 24, 2010