Every once in a while a curator will receive a new collection of objects that has in it one very special item that begs to have its story told. This recently happened to me when I unpacked Alan Eustace’s stratospheric spacesuit. The former Google executive and engineer, along with his StratEx team, set several records on October 24, 2014 including the world’s highest altitude parachute jump at 41.425 kilometers (135,899 feet).
To accomplish his mission, Eustace wore a one-of-a-kind spacesuit that carried him from the outer edge of the atmosphere and back down to Earth. Upon the announcement of his successful jump, I immediately recognized his suit as a product of ILC Dover, the company that made the Apollo spacesuits and continues to make spacesuits for astronauts working outside the International Space Station (ISS). I immediately called Curator Tom Crouch, and we both agreed the suit should be in our collection.
Fortunately for us all, Eustace and his team agreed. The suit, balloon equipment module, and parachute rig were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
The first shipment, including the suit, arrived at our Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland late last spring. Along with my colleagues Marcy Borger, Amelia Kile, and Natalie Rjedkin Lee we began to unpack. To our delight, we received exactly what we had asked for, Eustace’s complete kit with absolutely no modifications whatsoever. It was as though Eustace had stripped down on the spot after his landing. He sent us everything he wore for the jump from thermal underwear on out. It was a thrilling experience.
However, one thing immediately struck us as odd. There were thermal overgloves in the shipment and they were asymmetrical. The left overglove was missing a thumb pocket. We have similar thermal overgloves in our collection from space shuttle and ISS spacesuits. The overglove had been the answer to the wide temperature fluctuations astronauts’ experienced during extra-vehicular activity (EVA). In EVA suits, the overgloves helped protect the astronauts’ hands from losing precious body heat by conduction when they touched cold tools or components of the station or shuttle. Eventually, though, astronauts gave up on the idea because the gloves were bulky and impractical for gripping tools. Heater elements incorporated into the main glove fingertips provided adequate and controllable heating.
In contrast, Eustace wasn’t planning to perform any repair or installation work during his skydive, so the overgloves were an ideal solution to preserve his body heat. But there didn’t seem to be a clear reason why one glove had a thumb pocket and the other did not.
When Eustace came to the Museum to talk about his mission, I took the opportunity to ask him about the gloves. The answer was a fascinating tale of the elegant and practical ingenuity that characterizes how the entire suit was made. The suit was pressurized with pure oxygen before the balloon carried Eustace up into the stratosphere. His oxygen was what kept him alive as the he ventured into the thin atmosphere. In order to save weight, that oxygen was in limited supply—enough to get him up and down. For safety’s sake, protocol dictated that he had to be able to open up the face mask of his suit in the event that he landed outside his predicted landing zone and thus would need to wait for rescue. He would have to remove his mask before running out of oxygen.
In training, Eustace had to demonstrate that he could unlatch his face mask 20 times from each position that he was likely to land—his front, back, and both sides. Working against a pressurized glove is hard work. As much as he tried, Eustace couldn’t accomplish the task with the overgloves in place. His solution was to remove the inner thumb layer of the left glove. That tiny change in design gave Eustace the flexibility to fulfil safety requirements, while maintaining sufficient glove strength, and complete his mission.