A spacesuit is a complicated conglomeration of switches, dials, hoses, tabs, and multiple layers of high-tech material. It serves various functions and is part miniature spacecraft, part atmospheric re-creation, and part medical necessity — with the number one priority of protecting those who wear it. But that doesn’t mean a spacesuit is always comfortable. “The whole suit is like a big bladder and it weighs about 80 lbs,” said astronaut Scott Altman, explaining the intricacies of the orange ACES launch and entry space suit to a group of children, “and it’s not always easy to move around in it.” But, undoubtedly today’s suit is more advanced and slightly more comfortable than the spacesuit Altman’s STS-125 crewmate, John Grunsfeld assembled as a child, concocted from vacuum cleaner parts and ice cream tins.
Altman was visiting the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, IL, a facility he visited often while growing up. The museum presented him with a portrait painted by local artist and businessman Bill Hardin, a detailed depiction of Altman wearing the ACES suit, and Altman was asked to explain the various parts of the space suit to the children (and very interested adults) in attendance.
The Advanced Crew Escape Suit, or ACES, is currently worn by all space shuttle crews for the ascent and entry portions of flight.
“It’s a full-pressure suit,” Altman explained, “and the idea is if you are in the space shuttle and the spacecraft loses pressure, the suit will inflate because your body needs pressure on it so you can keep breathing and it will provide you with oxygen to breathe as well.”
The gloves and helmet are attached to the suit with locking metal rings. Altman said the neck can get a little uncomfortable because it has a “seal” that can get quite tight at the neck. “But it has some tabs we can pull on to bring the seal away from our necks when are walking around in the suit before you get on the space shuttle,” he said “which is nice because otherwise it is difficult to turn your head!”
Then Altman described the helmet. “It fits in and slides into the latches on the metal ring,” he explained. “The funny thing is that most helmets I’ve worn, when you turn your head the helmet turns with you. But in this helmet, you turn your head and you end up looking at the inside of the helmet. You actually have to turn the helmet manually with your hands by grabbing hold of the front of it and moving everything together.”
Another thing about the helmet is that wearing it makes it hard to see up above your head. What makes this interesting for Altman is that he is the shuttle commander, flying the spacecraft as the lead pilot. The shuttle has over 450 separate switches and buttons in the cockpit, not counting all the circuit breakers that can be pulled out. Some of them are located — you guessed it – up above the commander’s head.
Click here for a high resolution look at the inside of the space shuttle flight deck.
“We are strapped in our seats very tight, and with the helmet on it is really hard to look up,” Altman said. “You can’t lean back very well in the seats, so to look up at all the switches up high, you kind of have to bend over and twist and turn your head, and turn the helmet. So it makes life a little more difficult.”
One child asked about the big zipper-like contraption on the front of the suit.
“When you’re standing up in the suit everything fits pretty well,” Altman said, “but imagine when you are sitting down the bottom of the suit rises up and everything else moves up, too. Then, when the suit starts to inflate the whole thing starts to rise up so pretty soon you find yourself looking at the bottom edge of the inside of the helmet and you can’t see. So this is a pulley system that allows you to tighten up the suit so it doesn’t go up over your head. These are all-important safety measures!”
Altman used several acronyms to describe the different parts on the suit, saying NASA loves to make up new acronyms for everything. “We fly laptops in space to use but we don’t just call them laptops,” he said. “We call them PGSC’s and I don’t even know what that stands for!” (Payload and General Support Computer)
Later, Altman answered questions submitted by children about what he has seen on his space travels, how to eat and shower in space, and of course, how to go to the bathroom in space.