NASA Mandates Pressurized Spacesuits for Commercial Crew Fliers

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The three companies developing space taxies to fly NASA astronauts — and potentially privately paying customers — to the international space station will be required to provide pressurized spacesuits for the pilots and passengers.

“It’s a NASA requirement, but we also think it’s a good insurance policy for safety,” said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut now serving as commercial crew project manager for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif.

Privately held SpaceX is adding a launch escape system and other upgrades to its Dragon capsule, which already is being used to fly cargo to the station. Its competitors include Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, which is designing a reusable capsule called the CST-100, and Louisville, Colo.-based Sierra Nevada Systems, which is working on a winged vehicle called Dream Chaser. NASA plans to pay the companies a combined $1.1 billion through May 2014 to develop their systems.

While NASA is the primary and initial customer for low Earth orbital transportation services, it is not expected to be the only one. Bigelow Aerospace, for example, has agreements with both Boeing and SpaceX to support its planned privately owned inflatable research stations. Passengers flying to those outposts may be able to forgo pressurized spacesuits.

“We’re going to supply the kit to NASA because that’s what they want,” said Chris Ferguson, Boeing’s commercial crew program director and a former shuttle commander.

“It might be different if we fly to Bigelow. The one argument you could make is to put the pilot in a suit, because it’s his job to save everyone else’s life,” Ferguson said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial spaceflight, is in the process of deciding what aspects of private space travel need to be regulated and how to do so.

Virgin Galactic, which already is selling suborbital space rides aboard the privately developed SpaceShipTwo, plans to skip the pressurized suits. The company expects to begin passenger service in late 2013 or early 2014.

“Our plan is not to use them,” Virgin Galactic lead pilot David Mackay said. “Pressure suits add complication to the experience. I think a lot of people actually find them quite claustrophobic. And they tend to get very warm.

“We think our system is sufficient in both redundancy and safety that we don’t actually need pressure suits.”

Instead, Virgin plans to garb its passengers, who are paying $200,000 apiece for the ride, in a “very trendy, very Virgin” coverall, some type of protective headgear and lightweight socks with rubber on the soles to help people maneuver around in weightlessness.

“They’ll look the part,” Mackay said. “I think a lot of people actually do want to look like an astronaut when they go into space.”

That look is changing. Professional astronauts will be getting an upgrade from the bulky, bright-orange pressurized spacesuits, known as the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, or ACES, worn by shuttle fliers. Including its parachute and survival systems, an ACES suit weighed 42 kilograms.

“The ACES suit is large and bulky and had a helmet that didn’t really fold very well so it took up a lot of space on orbit,” Ferguson said. “We want the suit to be lightweight and we want it to be something unobtrusive when it’s stowed.”

“We’re looking to make a suit that’s going to be as close to a regular suit of clothes as possible, as far as how it impacts nominal operations,” Reisman added.

Sierra Nevada took advantage of skydiver Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump over New Mexico on Oct. 14 to learn about a new spacesuit’s performance. Baumgartner, who became the first person to break the sound barrier during a freefall skydive, wore a specially made pressurized suit to protect his body from the extremely low pressure and temperature of the upper atmosphere.

“Just the physiologic monitoring system that Felix wore generated 50 million data points,” said former NASA flight surgeon Jonathan Clark, who advised Baumgartner’s team.

Analysis from the skydive is ongoing.

NASA hopes to have a U.S. alternative for flying astronauts to the space station by 2017.

NASA plans to make $314 million in payments to Russia during the year that began Oct. 1 to support crew transportation and rescue services under a contract that runs through spring 2016, NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said.