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Building a Spacesuit out of Spare Parts

Posted on Fri, September 11, 2015
  • by: Patricia Dawson is working towards a Masters in History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. This summer, she interned with curator Cathleen Lewis in the Museum’s Space History Department.
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I never would have guessed I’d spend the summer building a spacesuit. It isn’t exactly your typical internship. But with a lot of “spare” parts generously donated to the Museum by the manufacturer, ILC Dover, there’s a spacesuit just begging to be assembled. I spent weeks figuring out how to put this suit together, and with more than 400 parts in the collection, it’s not as simple as you might think. Especially when the manual is classified. Spacesuits are incredibly complex engineering feats. They have to be. The spacesuit is the only thing that separates the astronaut from the deadly vacuum of space. Modern suits have 14 layers of material, plenty of hardware, wiring, and a host of life support systems to keep the astronaut alive. The Spacesuit Assembly Extravehicular Mobility Unit (SSA EMU), the suit currently used for spacewalking at the International Space Station, is built from replaceable parts that can be adjusted to fit each astronaut. Since these suits are reusable and have interchangeable parts, the Museum hasn’t been able to acquire a whole suit. That’s why we’re putting one together from the parts we do have in the collection.

<p>Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, STS-118 mission specialist, participates in the mission's first planned session of extravehicular activity (EVA), to continue construction on the International Space Station, August 11, 2007.</p>

So how do you build the most complicated type of garment ever invented without any instructions? You write your own manual. While it won't be completely assembled and displayed just yet, this manual will be used to help guide staff on how to put the pieces together in the future. After carefully studying the parts, looking at Apollo manuals, and other documents, I completed my own set of step-by-step instructions. Some of the parts in the collection are already assembled. The arms, for example, were nearly ready to attach to the hard upper torso. But other parts are down to just the bare hardware. I had to figure out how to put these together from the different layers of the suit and all the brackets, joints, screws, o-rings, and … the list goes on.

<p>Patricia Dawson spent her 2015 summer internship at the Museum building a spacesuit out of spare parts. </p>

<p>Patricia Dawson spent her 2015 summer internship at the Museum building a spacesuit out of spare part</p>

To build a suit, you start with three major layers. The suit has to be pressurized so that the astronaut can breathe, so an inner layer called the pressure bladder is needed. Next, the restraint layer keeps the spacesuit from ballooning in space and goes over the pressure bladder. Then the joints—which have inner and outer races, seals, ball bearings, spacers, and so on—attach to the first two layers of the suit, allowing the different parts to lock together. After you attach the joints, you screw on the restraint brackets. And don’t forget the electrical cables! These must be secured underneath the Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG), the outer layer that protects the suit from tiny micrometeoroids hurling through space. This final layer can be zipped, laced, and velcroed into place. Once all the parts are assembled, it’s time to put them together using complicated locking mechanisms and other techniques.

Building a spacesuit requires a lot of attention to detail. After all, it’s not like you can go to the store, pick up a hammer, needle, and thread and throw the suit together. But the challenge is what made this a great project to work on. If you ever find yourself building a spacesuit, just remember to take it one small step at a time.