Sexy Spacesuits: The Partial Pressure Suit Re-considered
As a boy, I had what I consider to be one of the most amazingly fortunate experiences any child of the 1950s could possibly have had. It was pure dumb luck that I grew up within a short distance of what was at the time the absolute epicenter of all post-war advanced experimental aviation testing, the Edwards Air Force Flight Test Center (known to most simply as Edwards AFB). Not much further away was another aerospace technology development facility known as NOTS China Lake (Naval Ordinance Test Station), operated by the United States Navy for much the same type of advanced aeronautical and weapons research. Between the two, there wasn’t much in terms of pioneering aviation research and development that didn’t go on at one or the other of these two centers.
Growing up in the 1950s was one continual series of exciting events after another, as all of the accumulated World War Two German aviation research gathered together in 1945 served as a theoretical database for existing American aviation firms, enabling them to design radical new concepts in jet turbine and rocket powered air & space vehicles. This was what aviation historians today regard as the ‘Golden Age’ of the X-planes, each succeeding development expanding the known frontiers of technical and scientific aerospace knowledge by leaps and bounds. Such was the pace of activity at Edwards that new altitude and speed records were set and broken within days of each other on a recurring basis. Exotic aircraft painted white (and later black), with short stubby or swept-back wings each day explored the formerly somewhat feared and completely unknown Mach barrier (the speed of sound) and the names of their pilots became known to a whole generation of aerospace minded kids across the country. While most of these young aviation enthusiasts could only read about these fabulous exploits on the threshold of space in magazines, I was able to visit the base regularly and actually see the beautiful machines up close, even touch them.
As the years passed, the sights, sounds and knowledge garnered in those early days of my life left an indelible impression on my growing awareness of manned flight that contributed enormously to a life-long fascination with aviation and aerospace technology. One area of the aerospace sciences of particular interest, perhaps catalysed to a great extent by my later military aviation experience in flight medicine, has been aerospace bio physiology, human factors and high altitude flight research. These areas of concern, taken together constitute the ‘human factors’ aspect of atmospheric and space flight, since space is a hostile environment to human beings. Without the ‘human’ sciences, advanced aircraft and manned aerospace vehicles could not perform their intended function, with the result that one of many important avenues of modern aerospace medical inquiry has been dedicated to development of suitable aircrew life support systems.
Back in the early 1950s, as the Mach envelope was pushed to higher and higher levels, the flight test pilots flying the new X-planes had to wear protective pressure suits, used in combination with the pressurised cockpits of their aircraft, since without pressurised breathing systems flight above 40,000 feet is simply not physiologically supportable. Furthermore, at an altitude of roughly 63,000 feet (an imaginary demarcation known as the ‘Armstrong Line’), human blood and bodily fluids will boil away due to the lessened atmospheric pressure, mandating the use of a pressurised garment to preclude that adverse effect. Despite the fact that crew compartments were pressurised, should that pressurization suddenly fail (explosively), a pilot who wasn’t protected by a pressure suit would lose consciousness in seconds and expire in short order.
The broader history of high altitude pressure suit development has been covered fairly exhaustively over the years, as a quick peruse of the internet will soon reveal. Mindful of that fact and not wishing to re-cover familiar ground unnecessarily, what I intend to do in these paragraphs is dwell on one particular aspect of the pressure suit development story that has not received as much attention. I refer here to what has become known variously as the 'partial pressure suit', and/or the ‘mechanical pressure suit'.
Pressure suits for high altitude flight are generally of two principal types, the FULL PRESSURE SUIT and the PARTIAL PRESSURE SUIT. In the case of the second example, the word ‘partial’ is at first a bit deceptive, since both types of suit serve the function of fully protecting a human being (albeit each through use of a different approach) from the lessened pressure found at higher altitudes. There are also other pressure suit designs (‘bladder type pressure suits’ and ‘passive liquid pressure suits’), but they are rather infrequently encountered these days in military aviation.
The full pressure suit (typically referred to simply as an FPS) encloses the human body entirely within an airtight, gas filled pressurised garment. In the FPS concept, it is the pressurised gaseous content of the suit that protects the occupant from lowered atmospheric pressure. Depending upon several variables, these suits may be pressurised to different levels (usually from about 3.4 PSIG to upwards of 5 PSIG) and vary from design to design in terms of how a system provides gaseous pressure for the suit, versus and separate from the breathing gas supplied to the helmet (which is often kept separate from suit gas).
The mechanical partial pressure suit (or ‘capstan’ suit), by contrast, replies upon a skin-tight garment that places actual physical pressure against the wearer’s skin in direct contact. Employing several different methods to accomplish this, the most common technique involves use of tubular air compartments (capstans) that run parallel to the arms, legs and torso of the wearer’s form-fitting suit. When inflated, the tubes apply the direct mechanical pressure to the body required; although functionally adequate for short periods at extremely high altitudes, the early capstan types (1950s & 60s era) were often described as being quite uncomfortable to wear for any length of time.
Suits of the full pressure type (etiologically descended from undersea diving suits) were the first to be explored by biomedical researchers for high altitude protection applications, beginning with early 20th Century developments in the United States and Great Britain (notably, the 1930s Mark Ridge suit design and the Siebe-Gorman Company’s subsequent development of that concept), and advances continued to be made on this approach to aircrew high altitude protection continuously, over succeeding decades, culminating in highly advanced suits developed for the American Apollo lunar landings of the early 1970s.
For its part, the partial pressure suit concept began for all practical purposes during the Second World War as part of research being carried out by an American physiologist known as Dr. James P. Henry, at the time working on the faculty at the University of Southern California campus in Los Angeles. Dr. Henry, born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1914, much later in life received a Doctorate in Medicine at USC and a PhD (physiology) from McGill University (Montreal, Canada). During the Second World War Dr. Henry (who held the rank of Colonel in the US Army Air Forces medical corps) worked at the USC Human Centrifuge facility (1943-47) and ultimately became Chief of Acceleration and Stress Studies at the Biophysics Branch of the Army Air Force’s Aero Medical Laboratory (located in Dayton, Ohio, now Wright-Patterson AFB).
During Dr. Henry’s collateral researches into G-suit protection for fighter pilots flying high-performance fighters, he became interested in protection for aircrew from lowered atmospheric pressure found at higher altitudes and began using techniques and methodologies incorporated in G-suit design to devise an experimental garment that featured tightly laced arm and leg sleeves that inflated with air pressure run through tubular assemblies (‘capstans’) on the sleeves. Whereas conventional G-suits were normally worn on the lower extremities and lower abdomen, and were inflated momentarily only during high G maneuvers to keep blood circulating in the head (thus preventing a sudden blackout that might otherwise occur as blood pooled in the olower extremities), Dr. Henry’s new ‘mechanical pressure suit’ concept served as an emergency system to be used principally when an aircraft’s cabin pressure was suddenly lost at high altitude (a situation known as ‘explosive decompression’) through combat damage or sudden failure in the cockpit's structural integrity. Upon experiencing an instant loss of cabin pressure, the suit would instantly inflate (suit inflation was automatically initiated by a pressure sensor) and thereby enable the pilot or aircrewman to descend quickly to a lower altitude before he lost consciousness.
Mindful (as a physiologist familiar with the various biochemical parameters of human physiology under varying pressure conditions) of certain aspects of human respiratory physiology known as ‘mechanical’ and ‘respiratory’ deadspace (defined as volumes of breathable gas not directly participating in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in breathing circuits), Dr. Henry’s experimental suit consisted of a pressure garment (described above) that was worn in combination with a tightly laced, rubber-lined airtight hood that incorporated a sealed goggle-type visor over the eyes and a conventional pressure-demand type oxygen mask bonded to the oronasal area of the hood's facepiece.
Early tests of this assembly revealed that it had the potential to protect its wearer for extended periods at substantial altitudes (40-80,000+ feet) and the research was brought to the attention of the Army Air Forces higher command for possible development. The recommendation was thereupon made that Dr. Henry initially explore the concept in cooperation with the David Clark Company of Massachusetts, at the time (1943-44) a primary contractor for US Army Air Force G-suits for pilots. The David Clark Company unfortunately had its hands full with its US Army Air Forces G-suit contracts and was unable to cooperate in the requested manner, but shortly after the war ended a cooperative effort was indeed initiated to further investigate the potentials of Dr. Henry’s design. Part of the impetus for this came from the wealth of high altitude research conducted by Germany during the war that had come into Allied hands at war’s end, but also from the realisation that the new jet turbine powered aircraft designs would very soon enable manned flights at speeds and to altitudes previously unimagined. Some sort of high altitude pilot protective assembly was, it was therefore determined, clearly needed quite soon and the Henry partial pressure suit suddenly became a object of renewed interest to the Air Force.
The initial post-war David Clark/Dr. Henry cooperative research resulted in preliminary suit assemblies designated the S-1 and S-2 suits. These suits were custom designed and individually fitted to their wearers (principally experimental flight test pilots flying the new X-planes at Edwards) by the David Clark Company and were used in the very earliest experimental flight test altitude record attempts. Further research and development of the concept quickly resulted in a standardised version of Dr. Henry’s suit that the Air Force designated the T-1 partial pressure suit. This suit was fabricated in 12 standard sizes that it was estimated would fit 98% of the subject population targeted and it was the T-1 suit that figured substantially in most mid-50s experimental aircraft flight test programs.
In succeeding years (1954 through the late 60s), further refinements in Dr. Henry’s basic design resulted in the improved MC-series suits (MC-1 through MC-4A) that bore similar appearances to each other, but that incorporated individual variations (such as anti-G and upper and lower abdominal pressure bladders). In addition, the original Henry suit’s full-pressure hood, with its incorporated goggle and oronasal breathing assembly that sealed at the neck, had also been progressively improved with a whole series of pressurised helmets designated the K-1, MA-2, MB-4, and MA-3. By the time the Bill Jack Scientific Instruments MA-3 and MC-2 helmets had been introduced, the original concept of a pressurised (rubber-lined) fabric hood with a removable hard outer shell (K-1, MA-2) had given way to an integrated helmet assembly (MA-3, MC-2) that also sealed at the neck (the suit and helmet assembly still consisted of two discrete components, however, as in the original Henry concept).
By the early 1970s, with the establishment of the US Air Force as the primary service responsible for all high altitude life support developments and the resulting LSPRO (Life Support Project Research Office), R&D emphasis shifted to full pressure suit designs such as those intended for the X-15, X-20 (AKA: ‘DynaSOAR’), Manned Orbital Lab (MOL), and Manned Space Program (Project Mercury, etc.), all of which posed extreme high altitude life support requirements that seemed capable of being met only by using a full pressure suit approach. Interest in the partial pressure suit concept consequently lessened and eventually died out in terms of active use of the partial pressure concept by the military services. By the time the 1970s began, American partial pressure suits (of the capstan type) were no longer in use by the US Air Force and existing stocks had been called up and redirected to NATO allies for use by their Air Forces.
One exception to this appears to have been a special program initiated by NASA (1971) that further investigated the use of mechanical (‘partial pressure’) suit designs for spaceflight applications. The suit in reference was referred to as a ‘Space Activity Suit’ (SAS) and among the stated objectives of this program was an effort to see if a form fitting garment that clung to the wearer’s body like a second layer of skin would permit the wearer to function normally in the vacuum of space. According to the research data, among the objectives prompting this inquiry was the need to “…improve the range of activity and decrease the energy cost associated with wearing conventional gas-filled pressure suits.” The benefits of such a startling design would include a substantial decrease in weight of the suit assembly, a vastly less complicated life support system, a substantially lessened amount of exertion required to function normally and less immediate danger if the suit’s integrity were unexpectedly compromised (as with, for example, a small puncture in its material).
It is worthwhile to pause a moment here, before further discussing this project, to make a few observations and comment on developments related to this unconventional approach towards protecting an astronaut in the vacuum of a space environment. As a child caught up in the fascinating post-war ‘Golden Age of Flight Test’ developments at Edwards Flight Test Center, my immersion in all things that flew (either in the atmosphere or in space) was, of course, complete. A precocious reader from childhood onwards, I quickly discovered the rich vein of science fiction and fantasy literature that Hugo Greenback helped pioneer in the 1920s with his AMAZING STORIES publication. Gernsback, known to many as the ‘Father of Modern Science Fiction’, featured full color illustrations of futuristic spaceships and spacemen on his monthly magazine. These tales inspired a whole range of contemporary spin-offs that included ‘Buck Rogers’, ‘Flash Gordon’, and dozens of other heroic fantasy characters who coursed the Galaxies in their flame-spewing rockets (they also inspired a new type of literature known as the comic book, but that's another story).
One aspect of this that never failed to register when I looked at one of those illustrations was the fact that all of these science fiction characters wore form-fitting space suits that fitted them like a leotard; in other words, they were skin tight and bodily conforming (barring bulky gloves, boots and fishbowl-like helmets), making no attempt to disguise or mask bulging muscles on the males or any of the womanly attributes we are all familiar with on females. At the time, as a child, I saw absolutely nothing unusual about the concept and it was only later in my teens, when I became aware of REAL ‘spacesuits’ being used at Edwards that I began to cast a jaundiced look at these fanciful expressions of someone’s overwrought vision of future protective spacesuits.
Still, and despite my newly acquired post-adolescent sophistry, it did not escape my awareness that by the late 40s and early 50s the very early US Navy full pressure suits being co-developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company actually did use clear and transparent bowl-shaped plastic helmets, just like those shown in Mr. Gernsback’s dramatic space opera images, back in the 30s! That was quite an interesting development. Some of Mr. Gernsback's visions were turning out to be less unrealistic than I had imagined. [Note: The concept of the clear 'fish-bowl' helmet saw even further use in the improved Project Apollo Lunar Mission suits of the early 70s, proving that some ideas never really go out of style.]
Over time, and despite this matching up of some formerly fanciful prophecies with converging reality, the gender allure offered by images of rather well-endowed women wearing form fitting spacesuits found a permanent home on Hollywood’s ‘B Movie’ circuit and it wasn’t long before all sorts of socially vacuous and cheaply made “sci-fi” films came out in the 50s and early 60s featuring (to varying degrees of impropriety) scantily-clad spacewomen, whose ample measurements were only enhanced by those skin-tight outfits the producers insisted in outfitting them with (Roger Vadim’s memorable ‘Barbarella’ is only one interesting example of the genre among dozens and dozens…’Attack of the Cat Women’ comes to mind as a particular egregious example).
Knowing what I did of physiology and physics as a teenager, the possibility that something like those fanciful and sexually suggestive spacesuits could EVER take shape as a legitimate concept had never even remotely occurred to me, of course, and although I enjoyed the magazines, novels and films as much as any other ‘sci-fi fan’, I always maintained a rather erudite disdain for the overtly sexual overtones implicit in them.
The foregoing having been tossed out as necessary background within which to put subsequent material into context, let us return once more to the NASA ‘Space Activity Suit’ (SAS) program that took shape in the early 70s. Among the findings that study produced was the fact that the human epidermis itself constituted a fairly perfect barrier to rather high pressure gradients. With very little gas permeability, though still porous to some degree, human skin was inherently strong and formed an ideal water barrier as well. The only thing missing, in fact, was a bit more strength in the form of an outer reinforcement to help the skin contain the body and protect it against extreme pressure gradients (such as found in a vacuum). Thus, the concept of a form-fitting, second skin garment was developed and research expanded in and about this quite fascinating idea. Suddenly, all those fanciful sci-fi projections of futuristic skin-tight spacesuits didn’t seem half as bogus as they had originally.
The potential benefits of such a mechanical pressure suit used for ‘in space’ activity (presumably near or in the immediate vicinity of a space craft) were quite obvious. There was the reliability factor to consider. Apollo Lunar suits by contrast are enormously complex, with numerous layers comprised of a vast range of intricately specialised materials (all of which have their varying vulnerability thresholds). A suit of the MCP, or ‘second skin’ type would have an inherently high reliability factor and an equally low set of failure parameters. Any single small perforation or compromise of an MCP suit would pose little real threat to the wearer, other than some mild discomfort and/or possible slight pain, but the breech would not pose a dire threat and would permit a return to the spacecraft for a quick and simple repair (in the form of a self-adhering patch). Unlike a fully enveloping, gas filled suit under pressure, there would be no catastrophic release of that pressure in the event of a cut or puncture and therefore no immediate threat of death.
The MCP type life support system, extremely complex and mechanically complicated on full pressure type suits, could be reduced to almost the same sort of rudimentary ‘sci-fi’ system that the Gernsback cover paintings illustrated (usually a transparent, bowl-shaped helmet that was connected via rubber tubes to a bottle of compressed breathing gas and a C02 absorber) being worn by Flash Gordon and his contemporaries. Of course the foregoing is deliberately over-simplified, but the point remains clear enough that substantial simplification would be permitted. Body cooling, always a chief design concern with suits used in space environments, could become a simple process mimicing the body’s own natural cooling and perspiration system. And actual tests of the prototype suits constructed for testing revealed that the body could be adequately protected against surface freezing effects by the garment, as well.
Ten prototype MCP suits were produced in the 1971 NASA program, each successive model incorporating improvements and refinements lacking on its predecessors, that were tested for upwards of thirteen hours by human test subjects in pressure chambers simulating extremely high altitudes (one test lasting as long as several hours) with no untoward effects more substantial than those posed by full pressure-suited subjects.
As developed at that time, however, these prototype suits did pose some problems not previously envisioned to a significant degree before the testing began. The most important problem related to swelling and edema in areas of skin that were not smoothly covered and contained by the suit. Understandably, the male crotch posed the biggest problems, since accommodating the male penis and testicles at the juncture of the lower extremities imposes a special set of bio engineering complexities that require extreme innovation to resolve; by contrast, the relatively smooth crotch area of a female did not pose a similarly high level of difficulty for obvious reasons. There were also some problems experienced with swelling and edema in the palms of the hands with the prototype MCP suits.
It was further found that barring new technological developments in both materials and methodologies, an MCP suit would have to be custom tailored for each wearer, much like Dr. Henry’s original partial pressure (capstan) prototype. Donning and doffing requirements imposed further obstacles, as did adjustment and fitting. One must bear in mind that this research was taking place in the very early 1970s and some forty years later (today) there have been a number of noteworthy advancements in both areas of concern that would permit potential accommodation and resolution. Elastomer technology (and that of all polymers in general) in particular has advanced substantively since 1971, so it’s fair to say that concerns that were acute in 1971 would be far less critical today in terms of resolving these short-comings and likely more easily resolved.
At this point, let’s again pause to consider a question bearing on protection from a vacuum that came up on one of the space-topic forums several years ago. In that forum someone wondered if a human being could survive in the vacuum of space for a short period of time without the aid of a pressure suit and/or supplemental oxygen. The question was prompted by several science fiction movies (at least two of which I distinctly recall) in which a spacecraft crew member found himself needing to evacuate his damaged spacecraft for the safety of another, but had no space suit available with which to affect a safe transfer between the two craft.
It was a very interesting question and one that caught everyone’s attention at the time. The short answer was “Yes, one could”, but only for a very short period of time. In other words, it would be theoretically possible for someone to blow the hatch on a craft and move rapidly in the vacuum of space to enter the airlock of another craft without wearing a suit if the time involved could be measured in seconds. The likelihood of such a maneuver being completed with precision and with such a short margin of safety is almost infinitesimal, however, given the very likely possibility of unforeseen complications in completing an unprotected transfer through a vacuum to a safely pressurised environment. The point that needs to be noted here is that the human body is an amazingly resilient organism with a substantial degree of protection against such threats built into it already. The key consideration of relevance here is length of exposure. If such a transfer could be achieved, even in a very limited amount of time, the mere fact that this (a non-pressurised, airless transfer) may be done tends to support the idea that with a far more elaborate protective system like an MCP suit, greater exposures and prolonged exposure times are not only theoretically possible but entirely achievable (assuming proper physiological approach, advanced materials, state-of-the-art engineering, supportive technologies, et al).
The 1971 NASA study ended by concluding that the MCP suit had definite possibilities and although imperfect and possessed of a number of unresolved shortcomings, future advances in science and technology could likely address these problems satisfactorily to enable a functional suit to be developed along the intended lines. Unfortunately, all advanced technology programs are quite costly (a factor that the average individual never seems to realise, as he continues to benefit from so many space program technological consumer spin-offs) and in the 70s and 80s period that followed, NASA experienced a substantial retraction of its formerly more adequate share of Congressional funding appropriations. Research on the MCP ‘skin-suit’ was therefore terminated and no further work was done on this innovative concept in space crew life support until quite recently.
In 2007, bio-astronautics engineer Dr. Dava Newman, a faculty professor at MIT in her mid-40s, almost single-handedly reopened the proposal for use of a conformational mechanical pressure suit garment in space when she began to study the problem anew, employing more than 40 years of advancements in technology, materials, and engineering methodologies. Dr. Newman, whom I have not personally met, appears to be a fascinating and acutely engaging individual who has deeply held (one could even say passionate) convictions about the possibilities of the advanced biosystems research she is conducting on the BioSuit spacesuit.
A native of Montana and the child of two educators (her father also a pilot), Dr. Newman was early-on captivated by the 1969 and 70s Apollo moon landing program much the same as I was by the early 50s X-plane research programs at Edwards. As an active young woman who enjoyed sports of all kinds, she later became a triathlete (among many similar pursuits) and approached all aspects of her life with the same keen, enthusiastic and acute bio physical perception that her sports training had fostered in her. Studying first at Notre Dame and later taking her PhD in Aerospace Biomedical Engineering at MIT, Dr. Newman is today the beneficiary of a life-long multi-disciplinary approach to the bio medical and physiological aspects of human experience. In previous centuries such a person would perhaps have been figuratively termed a ‘person for all seasons’, but regardless of the descriptive terminology used, Dr. Newman is clearly a formidable individual possessed of an extraordinary range of intellectual and socio-biological skills.
In the course of her later academic work, Dr. Newman found herself fascinated by prior work done in aerospace human factors (aerospace biophysiology) areas of study, most especially in spacesuit design (and particularly by the pioneering research done by James Annis and Paul Webb in their 1971 NASA project attempting to devise the MCP type ‘space activity suit’). Part of this interest may undoubtedly be linked to her triathlete training that she in fact references in an interview; her concept of a ‘skinsuit’ MCP type space suit may have been partly catalysed by the Speedo ‘skinsuit’ swimsuit designs that used advanced materials technology to enable low-drag passage through a liquid medium. Clearly, the fact that Newman is a trained and skilled athlete has worked to her advantage extremely well in enabling her to better understand the ergonometric and biological requirements of human beings as they transfer to the specifications for a bio-compatible life support garment capable of use in zero gravity/semi-gravity and/or space environments.
But before we examine Dr. Newman’s current ‘BioSuit’ project a bit more in depth, it would be propitious to first look back somewhat at one other of the two critical precursor catalysts underlying the present work being done. In addition to the already mentioned 1971 NASA ‘Space Activity Suit' research (summarized in NASA Report # CR-1892 dated November 1971), the much earlier fundamental research done by Saul Iberall on his ‘Lines-of-non-extension’ theory is a major key to understanding Dr. Newman’s BioSuit concept.
Arthur Saul Iberall, born in 1918, was a physicist who had a special talent for combining areas of inter-disciplinary science to his applied research in the physical study of bio-kinetics. Taking a baccalaureate in science (in physics) in 1940, he went on to do graduate work in several venues under some distinguished professors, but stopped short of completing his graduate degree. He received an honorary doctorate from Ohio State University in 1976 in a belated gesture of recognition of his pioneering, at times brilliant work in a number of areas of study. It is probably not far off the mark to speculate that Dr. Iberall was also an astute interdisciplinary visionary in much the same manner that Dr. Newman is, given his life-long pattern of making connections that others had perhaps never seen quite so clearly. In the course of his research he formulated the theory of what we call Homeokinetics, which is the application of the laws of thermodynamics to all self-organising systems dealing with nature, life, humankind, mind, and societies.
Throughout the Second World War Dr. Iberall worked for the National Bureau of Standards, during which time he consulted with the David Clark Company on a valving system for use on a partial pressure suit [Note: This work was likely associated with the Dr. James Henry capstan mechanical partial pressure suit work being done at USC]. Under terms of the National Bureau of Standards charter, all rights to technology developed by or coming under the aegis of the NBS were available to commercial development without restriction and since Iberall was a paid-employee of that organisation, he was proscribed from patenting his work. Since Iberall had also been closely involved in the early development of the X-15 full pressure suit (with special application to mobility aspects of joints and articulated appendages), during which time he had applied his theory on linear tension dynamics (i.e. ‘Lines of Non-Extension’) to the project suit’s design, his hypotheses and innovative research were freely adopted by the David Clark Corporation in development of their subsequent line of full pressure suits. The David Clark version of Dr. Iberall’s pressure restraining material was patented by David Clark as ‘Link-net’ and for reasons that are still subject to contention, the David Clark Company never formally recognised Dr. Iberall’s pioneering work in helping resolve full pressure suit mobility difficulties (or for his part in helping develop ‘Link-net’ material, which they say they arrived at separately, in the course of earlier work).
Although a bit too complicated to explain in detail within the limited scope of this paper, suffice it to say that Dr. Iberall’s theories served as the key underlying research that enabled and encouraged both the 1971 NASA ‘space activity suit’ project and Dr. Newman’s present ‘BioSuit’ project. Dr. Newman readily and generously acknowledges Dr. Iberall’s contributions, while strangely enough the David Clark Company, having become almost synonymous with the development of American full pressure suit technology, has never been as gracious. Dr. Iberall was not, in fact, even permitted to publish his findings until after 1951 under the terms of his NBS contract.
In most historical assessments of the rather interesting chronology of both full and partial pressure suit developments, the above nuance is rarely delved into and is usually mentioned (if at all) only in very brief passing, but it should not act to lessen the immense importance of Dr. Iberall’s studies associated with his innovative and highly original ‘lines of non-extension’ research. They remain in my opinion as a very worthwhile (if seldom referenced) chapter in the continuing story of efforts to devise fully effective, efficient and biokinetically appropriate protective garments for use in space and near-space environments.
Returning to Dr. Newman’s present and ongoing efforts to develop the BioSuit into a fully workable concept, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I was blissfully ignorant of the MIT team’s BioSuit project until very recently. For someone as concerned with aerospace life support history as am I, that is not a very worthy revelation. In fact, while doing some online research on classical (capstan) partial pressure suits, I accidentally stumbled across an image of someone—obviously female—garbed in a white body conforming garment topped off with a largish helmet. The person thus attired was posing against a modern sculpture in a nonchalant manner and my immediate impression was that the person shown was modeling some sort of casual ‘space-themed’ costume (a definite reflection of my thorough grounding in the old style ‘full pressure suit for space environments’ school) with no intended purpose other than to help a photographer create an arresting visual image.
Only after a bit of further searching did I learn that the person wearing the suit was in fact Dr. Newman herself, ‘modeling’ a tentative prototype of her BioSuit for the media. Once aware of this, a number of impressions flashed through my mind. First, I couldn’t help but note (as a normal male person) that Dr. Newman is a rather attractive woman (an ex-triathlete, of course) and the suit made that gender distinction quite clear. Following quickly on the heels of that automatic male gender response to visual stimuli came the thought that surely, if Dr. Newman wanted to have her proposal taken seriously (by stodgy academia and the insufferably serious world of hard science), she wouldn’t want to risk sullying it with any innuendo arising from the sort of Hugo Gernsback overtones of sci-fi sexuality that have always been a part of our society…or would she? After mulling this over briefly, I came to the conclusion that in today’s modern age, no bet is ever left languishing with a bookie for long and since funding has always been the primary research concern immemorial, ANY publicity, whether mildly suggestive or entirely serious was fair game for searching out potential sponsors and benefactors. Subsequent to more investigation, after which I felt I better understood exactly how extraordinarily and broadly aware Dr. Newman was, I began to feel confident that she is not only an astute multidisciplinary scientist, she is also an intuitively insightful person who has a profound understanding of our modern American culture as well. Dr. Newman gives me the impression that she is quite capable of dealing with any potentially aspersive issues arising from this particular nuance of her work. That is to say, as a very intelligent, cogent, and highly accomplished professional woman, she is very likely able to make her personal aesthetics work for her, rather than against her.
That having been said, a review of the BioSuit is in order. The BioSuit uses the same sort of basic mechanical pressure principle of compressing the human body’s outer surface as the early capstan partial pressure suits, but that is where almost all similarities end. At the core of Newman's BioSuit are to be found much evolved and advanced applications of Dr. lberall’s pioneering work with ‘lines of non-extension’ physics. The BioSuit process takes that theory and incorporates leading-edge advances in materials technology and biokinetic physiological theory, to bring it to a new level of sophistication. According to reports I’ve read, MIT is currently focused on BioSuit kinetic accommodations required for the upper and lower extremities, with their substantially problematic range of motion requirements. Once these problems have been resolved, the technical difficulties posed by the need to produce a suitable helmet and life support package to interfaced with the BioSuit (i.e. respiratory apparatus) should prove far less a concern.
As already noted with regard to the 1971 NASA Space Activity Suit program, in order to be effective in a low pressure environment, appropriate skin tension must be maintained uniformly by a suit, even in areas that by protrudE from the body appreciably (e.g. the male crotch and the female breasts), and as such this poses special concerns. Information released by Newman’s MIT team state that in order to be effective in a space or near-space environment, a constant overall pressure of about 4.9 PSIG (30 kPa, or kilopascals) must be maintained against the skin; this is the equivalent of about a third of sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth. Full pressure suits of the old US Navy Mk4 (early 60s) or modern David Clark PPS model S-1031 types (late 80s) usually maintained an internal pressure of about 3.5 PSIG. Dr. Newman’s present prototypes appear capable of approaching about 20 kPa consistently, but there are reports that newer and more advanced experimental models of the BioSuit have verged upon 25 or 30 kPa.
Given the complexities of this program and the substantial engineering and technological challenges being dealt with in the MIT Biosuit program, it is likely that the first fully functioning MIT suit will be a hybrid, combining elements of both the MCP partial pressure approach and that of the traditional full pressure suit (i.e. use of bladders and pressurised sections extending down into the human torso and thorax section).
All of the foregoing assumes that Dr. Newman’s research continues to be endowed with sufficient funding to permit development to proceed at a sufficiently adequate pace and scope. In today’s atmosphere of widespread American economic constraints and NASA budget cutbacks, this outcome may be subject to revision. One possible solution would be to draw the corporate commercial sector into cooperative backing agreements and it would appear that Dr. Newman, astutely understanding this worrisome necessity, is well aware of the need to do so (and has in fact already drawn a few interested commercial companies into a productive colloquy regarding this).
At this time, NASA'S ambition to land a Mars exploration team on that planet in the next 15 or so years haS been threatened by the same budget concerns alluded to earlier. As previously explained, the average American, dazzled by wonderful consumer spin-offs of high-tech space science and technology, almost completely fails to understand how horrifically expensive technological research programs (like the Mars Mission or the MIT BioSuit project) actually are. As a result, forward-looking visionaries such as Dr. Dava Newman may only persist in their inspired work and maintain hope that the importance of their research is more broadly recognised with the financial backing it requires.
Given that dollars and cents reality ever hovering in the background, all we can do is hope that Dr. Newman succeeds in demonstrating herself to be every bit a real-life, modern equivalent of the 1980s television series ‘Buck Rogers’ character Colonel Wilma Deering (played by actress Erin Grey). Newman may well succeed in advancing our bio physiological state-of-the-art exponentially with her BioSuit project, as the now all but forgotten partial pressure suit concept takes on an entirely new importance in aerospace life support history under her thoughtful and future-minded aegis.
For the record, it would also appear that 'sexy' spacesuits are not that far off the reality mark, after all!