Space Suits Past and Future

Bill Elkins has been outfitting astronauts since before NASA was born.

Testing the AiResearch Advanced Extravehicular Suit’s range of motion in the 1960s. (Courtesy Bill Elkins)

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Elkins: They had to be different from the earlier Apollo suits because the lunar rovers would carry astronauts some distance away from the lunar lander. They wanted to explore interesting geological features on the moon. NASA wanted a suit that, should the rover fail, had the mobility for the astronaut to quickly traverse back to the lunar module.

Apollo 16 and 17 used the ILC A7L suit that was not much of an improvement over the previous Apollo suit. In the competition for the extended Apollo missions, the AES was the first truly high mobility suit. It had about 95 percent of nude mobility range. It had significantly greater lifecycle capability. I don’t remember, but I believe the [target length for a lunar stay] was about eight days.

A&S: It’s interesting to see that so much of Constellation, such as the shape of the crew capsule, the composition of the heat shield, the launch abort system, etc., is almost identical in their general design to what was used on Apollo. It appears we figured a lot out the first time around. Will the same be true of the suits?

Elkins: Well I’m hoping to influence that. I hope to work with Oceaneering International [a NASA contractor for the Constellation lunar suits]. I have a concept for an EVA [extravehicular activity] suit with some pneumatic restraints. I think elements might apply to Constellation. It’s already applied to a host of applications in the medical field in liquid cooling and pressurization for MS and epilepsy and head trauma patients.

A&S: How will the new suits handle the damaging lunar dust?

Elkins: Good question. I have some concepts. I’m in the beginning stages of some ideas on electrostatic solutions to dust. One of the suits I studied for Lockheed was for doing polar [Earth] orbits, in which you’re introduced to more radiation than with east-west orbits. I came up with the idea of using high density tungsten fabric to increase radiation protection. Tungsten is highly conductive electrically, but still flexible. That high conductivity woven fabric with an electrostatic charge might repel lunar dust.

A&S: What do you think of the proposed suit that would attach its back entry to the outside of a moon base? After a moonwalk, the astronaut exits the suit to enter the base.

Elkins: I’m not a great proponent of the rear entry arrangement. It’s heavy, and uses valuable real estate that interferes with full mobility. My philosophy is to allow the human to operate as the magnificent machine it is. Back door entry does not easily allow for a two-axis waist joint, and that’s especially risky in unprepared terrain. Almost any maneuver you do, you’re unconsciously using your waist. I doubt that you can make the back door entry suit with the waist joint. Furthermore, there would be maintenance issues. Eventually you’ll need to replace components. So you’ll need access to the suits. For me, the human body is an engineering marvel that took several million years to develop. I want the pressure envelope over that body to exhibit the same mobility. That would minimize learning time in using the suit, and allow rapid solutions to problems during [spacewalks].

A&S: The old Apollo suits were used for one mission and retired. How will the new suit be built to handle repeated use?

Elkins: It will have to have a three-million-cycle life, minimum. One bend in one direction, and returning to neutral, that’s one cycle. The Apollo suit joints, and the latest shuttle suit joints, are not much good above 60,000 cycles.

A&S: What drives you to continue your work?

Elkins: I’m 80, and I’m still pretty much working around the clock. If I can contribute to mankind, space, medicine, and other-life hazardous protective applications, it keeps me young.

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