Today (February 1), marked the 14-year anniversary of the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia. I’ve been thinking about writing an article marking their deaths and I will write something to honor them on an article to come in the near future. The fact that Boeing revealed their spacesuits NASA astronauts will be wearing aboard their Starliner spacecraft made me delay the tribute to the STS-107 crew. The crew will definitely get mentioned in this article since the design of the helmet and communications cap seem to come from lessons learned from the deaths of the Columbia crew.
Boeing revealed the suit last week on an event on Facebook Live in partnership with the Washington Post. I was not aware of this event, or I would have been glued to Facebook, watching this entire event, but I digress. When I first saw the suit, I had mixed feelings about it, especially with the fact that the helmet is attached to the suit. Each suit is specially made for each person wearing the suit, because it’s a pressurized nearly one piece suit. The gloves are the only part that is attached. My opinion of it now is that it is much better than the ACES or orange suits worn by the space shuttle crews after the Challenger accident (who wore light blue jump suits).
These two pictures show the suits side by side. The one on the left are the old suits worn by Shuttle astronauts and the one on the right is the “Boeing Blue” suit. The Shuttle (ACES) suits weighed 30 pounds, was bulky, astronauts said they felt like they waddled instead of walked when wearing them. The helmet was attached and had a metal ring around the neck area. The Boeing suit weighs 12 lbs and is made with lighter “breathable” materials so that the person in the suit doesn’t get overheated too quickly. Both suits are entered from the back and is zipped up. The Boeing suit gloves are more flexible and are touch screen sensitive so the crew can use tablets and the screen is compatible with the task of touching whatever is needed on the screen. The second picture shows the suit pressurized, so the suit is not as bulky looking once it is depressurized. NASA has decided to go with the same type style of suit for their Orion capsules that astronauts will use for deep space missions. The Orion crew suits will be able to perform spacewalks, Boeing suits are not made for that purpose. It’s just made to keep the astronauts safe and alive during an emergency such as fire or cabin depressurization.
The Orion capsule (left) will carry up to four astronauts on its missions, and as you can see, the suits look like the Shuttle suits, except they will include the hoses like in the old Apollo days we saw astronauts carrying. Starliner looks more futuristic as well does the Starliner capsule. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the boots worn by astronauts traveling in Boeing’s Starliner capsule will be much lighter than the black boots worn by Shuttle and future Orion crews. The boots worn by Boeing crews are created in association with Reebok.
One of the more obvious safety feature comes from the helmet. The Startliner helmet is soft and less rigid design with a wide visor that vastly improves the astronauts peripheral vision. Engineers also designed the suits communications cap with a built-in cranial helmet that will have padding that will protect the astronauts from impacts within the helmet. This was a lethal event that was discussed in the report on the Columbia accident that contributed to the deaths of the astronauts. As Columbia spun out of control, astronauts heads were able to move around inside the helmet and blunt force trauma occurred from the forces of the spin. The crew was mostly unconscious during these impacts due to the depressurization of the crew capsule that happened so fast that the crew didn’t have time to lower visors and pressurize suits. The picture on the left shows Laurel Clark (a mission specialist on the ill-fated STS-107 mission) and you can see how big the helmet was compared to the crew member. The communications cap wasn’t cushioned so there was no protection from injury from an unconscious crew member impacting the helmet in an out-of-control vehicle situation.
I’m looking forward for SpaceX to reveal the spacesuits their crews will wear on their Dragon2 spacecraft. I was kinda shocked because SpaceX usually led the way as far as firsts with their spacecraft. I think the Boeing suit looks ascetically more appealing and more futuristic than NASA’s current version of the ACES. Now SpaceX, it’s your turn to up the game and keep us interested and excited about the things you’re doing on the human spaceflight side of things.
Another article will come that will cover Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” spaceplane that was selected to join SpaceX and Orbital for cargo supply missions to the International Space Station.