NASA spacesuits put on a few pounds With shuttle, gravity issue is unimportant

March 31, 1991|By New York Times News Service

While many products, from automobiles to appliances, have been redesigned to reduce weight, when it comes to spacesuits for astronauts, the nation's space program has left the weight issue behind.

During NASA's Apollo space program in the 1960s and 1970s, weight was a major concern because of the gravity involved in lunar missions. But in flying shuttle missions, gravity is no longer an issue.

In a weightless environment, heavier, cheaper materials can be used in spacesuits, said the Hamilton Standards division of United Technologies Corp., the nation's leading maker of the suits.

It is more important now for spacesuits to come in separate pieces, called modules, and in a number of sizes.

Spacesuits were once custom-made for each astronaut. Now they come in sections that can be matched to the individual astronaut. Modules for the arm, upper torso and lower torso, for example, are made of several layers of materials, which include: urethane-coated nylon; Dacron; nylon coated with neoprene; five layers of aluminum-coated Mylar; and surface layers of protective Teflon, Kevlar and Nomex, a lightweight, fire-resistant nylon fiber.

"With the shuttle program, modularity, maintainability and reliability became much more important," said Christopher Poythress, program manager for Hamilton Standard's Extravehicular Mobility Unit.

As a result, a spacesuit now weighs about 270 pounds, compared with 150 pounds during the Apollo program.

But the spacesuits have not come down in price. Hamilton Standard said orders for the suits were broken into 18 items, including sizes. When support services, like administrative costs, are added, the average cost of each suit is about $10 million, the company said.

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