Space Suit of the Week

The Space Suit of the Week is the EX-1A! In the video above, you can see Bill Elkins, the man largely responsible for the suit, demonstrating the mobility of his design in the late ’60s. The range of movement in this suit is superior to previous suits because it uses a special kind of toroidal joint. “Toroidal” sounds fancy, but it basically means that the joints are shaped like donuts, albeit really complicated metal donuts… for outer space. The Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine has an excellent interview with Elkins that covers the territory from the time he withstood 16.5 magnitude g-forces while staying conscious to the EX-1A suit.

About the battle between hard and soft suits, Elkins says:

“There are some advantages of the hard suit, although I did not remain a proponent of it. The hard suit had value for being able to go to much higher pressures. The higher you go, the less likely you are to have the bends when exiting a higher-pressure space vehicle. So if you were wearing [a hard suit], you could scramble to do an emergency [spacewalk] because you didn’t have to pre-breathe for four hours. It’s a very mobile little spaceship, if you will. Vic Vykukal, a NASA Ames engineer, also did pioneering work on the hard suit. The soft suit came from a line of pressure suits used by the Air Force and Navy. BF Goodrich’s soft suits for the Mercury project were evolved from a Navy pressure suit… It was a question of cultures and politics within the R&D labs. There was the West Coast technology such as Litton, and NASA’s Ames Research lab; but then the older timers from the East who knew soft suits. Ultimately, soft suits won out.”

Every time I read suit engineers talking about suit design (and the one time I’ve actually asked an astronaut) they say the biggest challenge of the suit is accommodating movement at pressure. Which doesn’t sound very exciting, but has lead to innovative design solutions, including hard suits like the EX-1A.  And even though hard suits never made it off the ground, maybe it’s better that they explore space only in our heads, floating around between the moon and donuts.


February 18, 2011 / By