A major milestone for developing a new spacesuit

Former NASA astronaut Danny Olivas tells me about Collins Aerospace's project to build a new spacesuit.

You may remember our interview last year with Collins Aerospace. A subset of RTX, it’s working with NASA to develop the next generation spacesuit. Well the company has hit a new testing milestone, recently demonstrating its capabilities in a zero-gravity environment. One of those who got to give the suit a test drive was Danny Olivas, chief test astronaut and director of mission systems at Collins Aerospace. I got the opportunity to ask him about the new suit and where things stand currently.

Interview Transcript: 

Danny Olivas So I joined Collins Aerospace probably almost a year ago, today. And I have, I was brought on initially, within engineering to help them build the next generation spacesuit, which is a follow-on spacesuit to the international space suit, which the NASA currently uses. And, this job really intrigued me, because one obviously has an affinity and, a special place in my heart for the EMU, the spacesuit which is on orbit. Did you know, five spacewalks? You know, back in my days at NASA. And so having an opportunity to participate in the next generation space suit, to me was a really exciting venture. Not only because I’m working on spacesuits, but when you consider the EMU was built by the same people at Collins Aerospace 40 years ago, and it’s still functioning today, you know, really gives me an opportunity as an engineer to contribute to something that, you know, could well outlive me. And then certainly is, is a testament to where this company is going, in the future of space exploration, human space exploration. So, it’s exciting to be part of that. You know, that that that bold venture. We are headlong into our test program. We’ve completed our preliminary design review of that replacement suit for ISS. And, we have just completed a couple of milestones. I’m happy to tell you about those, a little bit later on.

Eric White Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, why don’t we just get right into those milestones? You know, I imagine there’s got to be quite a bit of testing when you’re, designing a new spacesuit. What is the most recent one that has been accomplished?

Danny Olivas Well, so for those who don’t know the difference between the old suit and the new suit, the best way to consider them is by considering what’s the same about them. And basically, they have two arms, two legs, a helmet, and they’re white. Beyond that, everything is different and there’s a reason why it’s different. The old suit had for the workhorse that it was for the International Space Station and NASA’s space shuttle program. Is that it was it was conceived at a time when we didn’t know what really the suit was going to be asked to go do. And then we went we built the International Space Station. Well, since then, we have learned a lot. And Collins is embedded those lessons learned into understanding what we can do for the future of space suit building. Some things, for example, that we learned were that the design of the suit was such that it was very restrictive in its motion. Weren’t really sure how the suit was going to be used. And then once we realized how it was going to be used, we realized, well, we could have made some improvements had we known then what we know now. So, we’re actually doing that. We’re taking what we have learned and actually embedding that. So, mobility is an issue. Also being able to fit the anthropometric range that NASA has been hiring astronauts for over, you know, since the beginning of the shuttle program. Originally, the space shuttle was built, to handle astronauts that were between the fifth and 95th percentile of the U.S. population. We are building a suit that will handle the, an opportunity to fit between the one and 99th percentile of the entire global population. So, it’s really a diverse suit. And with that comes all sorts of challenges of, of correcting things that, that you saw in your previous design and implementing them for future designs. So, we just have come off of a series of tests. One was a 1G test, basically just some basic demonstration of mobility and fit in the suit in a 1G environment. And then more recently, in January, we completed our Zero-G test, or microgravity tests, where we subjected myself and another colleague of mine, Dan Burbank, to 40 parabolas each over the Gulf of Mexico, 22nd increments of micro G environment to do a variety of demonstrations to give confidence to NASA that not only do we know how to build a suit, but it can satisfy all the objectives and more. What’s going to be required of the suit in the future?

Eric White So specifically in the tests, you say 20-second increments. Are you okay on the next 20 seconds, I’m going to try and do a flip for Croucher. And you, you know, obviously you’re probably looking at more than just actual movement, but what are you trying to test within those 20-second increments?

Danny Olivas Well, you know, it is one of those things where you just like doing a spacewalk, you know, you develop a choreography if you don’t know what you’re doing when you go into a test, you’re not going to know what you’ve done and whether you’ve done what you thought you were supposed to go do. So, we actually started planning early on the test team and we would practice in our laboratory downstairs and basically, you know, lay all the equipment out on the floor that we were going to be evaluating. And then we would go through each one of the parabolas. So, you know, for those who are unfamiliar with the Zero-G flight profile, you basically, you know, fly these, you know, giant arcs. You know, you go up really high in about 35,000ft and come barreling down to about, you know, 16,000ft. Then you pull back up again. And during that time frame of the fall, the plane is supposed to match roughly the equivalent acceleration of gravity, so that inside the plane you feel like you’re weightless because it happens pretty quickly. Each one of those parabolas, you experience micro-G for about 20-seconds before you kind of have to start pulling yourself back up because you don’t want to go into the ocean. That’s a that’s a bad day, right? So those pull ups or pull outs are actually, somewhere in the order of like two G’s. So, you go from a series of zero g to two Gs to zero G to two Gs to zero G to two G’s. That’s all of 40 times during the flight. Hence the name is lovingly called the Vomit Comet. Right? And so that term before it is a very provocative flight profile, but it’s really the only way to test in a micro-G environment here on planet Earth. There is no other place. We don’t have a room at NASA that you can push a button, and all of a sudden everything starts to flow. That just doesn’t happen. And so, it’s a way for us to test those things that we cannot test in a 1G environment. It’s also meant to test things that we cannot necessarily test in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which actually is going to be the next step for us now that we’ve completed this, these series of tests, I should say. Our next objective is in the next couple of months is to get into the big, you know, swimming pool at NASA. You know, take our suit, throw belly button inside, toss it inside the tank and have them kind of work around on the space station, similar to what the current EMU does. That is what we refer to as us as our task capability assessment. You know, and the system that we’re testing right now, by the way, is a pressure garment system. You know, we have, as you might know, we actually have two, two teammates, ILC Dover and Ocean Air and Space Systems. ILC Dover is the prime on the pressure garment system. That’s the thing that the astronaut is in when they’re doing a spacewalk. Now, that’s something that we can test in zero G and one G and a Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Collins Aerospace is prime on the primary life support system. So, it’s a backpack in place. Now it turns out that that that primary life support system only functions in the vacuum. And all. It’s meant really to operate in space. So, you can’t test that, like in a Zero-G environment or in a, in a swimming pool environment. We have some tests that are slated later on this year, which will ultimately, you know, you know, it’ll the apex of that is going to be a test where we put a person most likely me, in the suit with a primary life support system in a vacuum chamber. And we have one of our other, partners. Oceaneering is providing, a lot of our interfaces with the ISS. So, at that point we’ll be testing their interfaces out as well to make sure that, you know, that everything works together. And, you know, we can do what we need to do in order to be able to get the crew ready to go outside to do a spacewalk.

Eric White Gotcha. Okay, so you said most likely yourself as a former NASA astronaut, you’ve worn the old suits. I’m just curious, you know, when you first got involved with this, was there something at the top of your list where you were like, okay, the first thing I’m suggesting is, you know, more space in the crotch area. What was there something that was at the top of your mind that you were like, please do this first?

Danny Olivas Yes. And it’s actually been my rallying cry for everything that I do. And that is diversity. You know, one of the things that the astronaut that the, EMU was unable to do was to take advantage of the full diversity, that the crew office provided, primarily because it was built for what at the time, we didn’t know really know what kind of astronauts, typically male astronauts. Right. So, as it turns out that, a guy is almost six foot tall, you know, I weigh 200 pounds plus. Don’t tell anybody. Right? It’s just between the two of us. And would you believe it or not, the smallest suit that was available is the one I trained in. And it was actually the medium sized, because they do make a small. Now, there’s a variety of reasons as to why and how we got to the point where we never ended up making a smaller version. But people who were anthropologically much smaller than I am, which is a large percentage of the population, by the way, meant that that suit fit was not like an ideal suit fit. So they had some strategies that they would use everything from putting foam and cushions and harnesses and whatnot inside the suit, but it put a portion of or a crew office in a kind of an unfair disadvantage in their training for EMUs, which meant that if you take a look at the backgrounds. So, if you take a look at the people who actually gone off and done EVAs what you’re going to notice. Very few females actually have done EVA’s. And the reason being is because unfortunately, they were hampered by an ill-fitting suit. So, by designing this suit, really for the full anthropometric range that we’re really targeting with the suit, we’re going to open up human exploration tremendously, because now you’ll have a much more diverse population that can actually participate in that. And so, to me, that has been one of the most important things in that I have front of my mind. Safety first and foremost. Right. But equally up there is the fact that this suit has to basically fit everybody and for a suit that was a workhorse for as many years as it has been. We’ve really been able to leverage into what we’ve learned about the previous suit, to be able to make those really kind of not just incremental changes or like, you know, significant changes in the suit to allow smaller crew members to be able to actually operate effectively and efficiently in the suit.

Eric White Yeah. You know, with the EMU, you know, why? Why weren’t those little incremental changes able to be made? Was that just, you know, you either have to make the whole suit and you can’t really make the changes was not designed that way. Was that part of the issue or was it coming down to the almighty dollar?

Danny Olivas Yeah, that’s a great question. And I would say it was a mixture of both programmatic economics and then just geometry. The first talk, first about the geometrical aspect of the geometry of the suit is that on the front of the suit you have the display and control module. That’s the intelligence that you need to communicate with everything that’s in the, in the backpack, the primary life support system. It’s what controls your fans and your power and your communications, etc., etc.. So it turns out that if you’re going to make a smaller, hard upper torso, which was kind of the, like the vest, if you will, of the suit, right, that you attach your arms to and you attach the legs to that was made out of fiberglass. And so, if you made the chest portion of that too small, like you brought the shoulders in too narrow. Now the DCU or DCM wouldn’t fit. And so, there was a geometry problem, right. And then there was the fact that, you know, there was also programmatic issues of like, okay, we have a lot of competing things at NASA that we’re having to go fund. Where are we going to put our money? And then it was like, how much is it going to cost to actually build a very small hut in order to be able to accommodate these, you know, the rest of the, the office. And so now you spent a lot of time looking at that, you know, I don’t know exactly how and the real behind why each one of those decisions were made. But the fact of the matter is, is that we never got to the point where we had a small hut available. You know, so now we are actually building a hard, a hybrid upper torso. So, it’s part hard and part, soft, like the, like the arms and the legs. Right. So, this hybrid system actually allows us to really only offer two sizes. And it turns out that the overlap in the sizes is significant enough that we should very easily be able to accommodate the entire anthropometric range that there were looking for. So not only is a suit want to be more robust in its ability to be used by other people and different types of people, but it’s also going to be safer. One of the other challenges that we had with the previous suit is that the shoulder joints, because of the way that they were oriented and the fact that it was a hard upper torso resulted in a lot of shoulder injuries for your astronauts. I think I heard one time a, one of the flight surgeons reflect that 85% of the people who did spacewalks actually suffered some level of shoulder injury or trauma. And, you know, so we had shoulder injuries. We had, you know, people who had, you know, severe hand injuries and numbness. We had, you know, back strains and things of that sort. So, the idea is to build a suit that is more comfortable and more accommodating to the astronauts. That’s safer for the astronauts. It’s, you know, comfortable for them. That’s intuitive for the astronauts. And, you know, we have a slogan that we like to say that this is a spacesuit that is by astronauts for astronauts. And we really do mean it is like we’re taking the astronaut experience it, and we’re embedding it in everything that we do.

Eric White You mentioned a few of the tests that you have coming up, where you yourself could be stepping into a vacuum chamber. I’m wondering, you know, do you miss space? And do you ever see yourself being the first one to wear this suit? Actually, on the on the or not on the ground, I guess, in the air, back up in space.

Danny Olivas Well, look, Eric, I’m going to be honest with you, I, I’ve had an opportunity to do my do. You know, I was blessed to have flown on the space shuttle when I did. I don’t I’ve never said to myself, boy, I could fly in space again because I did have my opportunity. And that’s part of why I’m here, is because I feel like it’s a way for me to pay back the opportunity that I was given. I’m working with the same group of, you know, same company, the same group of engineers and people and many of them that were here back when I was with the program and their suit kept me safe. Brought me back from five spacewalks. You know, basically in a place where human beings were never meant to live and work. And yet this suit allowed us to do so as human beings. Right. And so, it’s my opportunity now to give back to the next generation of astronauts. You know, this suit. What makes me excited about this suit is it’s not just a suit about going up and replacing the one it’s on space station. You know, after space station’s gone, we’re going to have commercial destinations. Those are going to be there. CLD is going to have, you know, maybe one, two, who knows how many types of space stations which will be on orbit. That’ll be commercial. And, anytime you build a space station out there, you need to go outside and do work. And so, this suit is basically meant to be a microgravity suit. Additionally, the technology is 90 to 95% extensible to the lunar surface. So, we’re not just building the suit with the intention of if it only existing in low Earth orbit. We’re looking at a cislunar. So, between here and the moon we’re looking at gateway, which is going to be orbiting the moon. And then also boots on the ground at the lunar surface. This suit will be able to do well once you get to the lunar surface, you have some different requirements that you have to meet. But again, it’s only going to be 9 or 5 to 10% of the additional changes. Mostly, the suit will be the exact same suit that you see on ISS.

Eric White And they can be as short as they need to be, astronauts.

Danny Olivas Exactly, exactly they that while I like to think I do like to think of it from a standpoint of flight, I just like to think that it’s going to it’s going to greatly allow for the full complement of astronauts that are out there. It’s going to diversity is an important thing for me, being, you know, Mexican American, you know, being the, you know, the first Hispanic or first Mexican American to do a spacewalk. And I know the importance of, of enabling these kinds of, of opportunities. And so, I’m excited to be part of this and give back in a way that I feel like I’m, again, paying back for the opportunities that I was given with the space shuttle program. This is not a spacesuit about astronauts. This is a spacesuit about human beings here on Earth who put the suit together for those astronauts. You know, I’m so proud to be working alongside all the engineers that I work with. They’re the ones who I wish you could talk to because they’ve got great stories. You know, I was just having lunch with, you know, five of them today, young, young engineers. And it was just it just so exciting to see them excited about the work that they’re doing, the contributions that they’re making. And everyone has zeroed in on this mission of building, you know, a safe space suit that is going to take the lessons that we learn from the past and propagate them forward. You know, many of our names will never be remembered in history. I know mine; I don’t care if anyone remembers me in the history, but the fact that my thumbprints show up on the suit alongside many of the other thumbprints from everybody else I’m working with here today, gives me a great sense of pride. And so, this is why I’m an engineer. This is why I do what I do. This is why I’m happy to be where I’m at is because it’s really about that. This accomplishment is really about a testament to the teamwork here at Collins. And so, I’m just very proud to be here. And I’m happy for people to know that, that this is an engineering endeavor that makes human spaceflight possible.

Eric White Danny Olivas is chief test astronaut and director of mission systems at Collins Aerospace.

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