Hundreds of people have already signed up for suborbital flights into space through Virgin Galactic, one of several firms that plan to offer such trips by 2010. But what are all those space tourists going to wear?
A new company called Orbital Outfitters is already at work on a space suit specifically designed for suborbital tourism. Last week, Orbital announced that it had signed a contract with XCor Aerospace, of Mojave, CA; the companies will work together on finalizing a space-suit design and other safety equipment. Orbital Outfitters will manufacture and own the suits, which will be leased to XCor.
“Billions of dollars are flowing into all kinds of new commercial spaceships, which will carry all kinds of people into space,” says Rick Tumlinson, president of Orbital Outfitters. His company intends “to help make this happen, make it happen in style, and make it happen at a profit.” Orbital hopes to unveil its first designs in the next few weeks.
The requirements for space suits for the new tourist vehicles are quite different from those for conventional, government-run spacecraft like the shuttle, says XCor president Jeff Greason. The suits need to be more flexible and comfortable and much cheaper, while still able to provide lifesaving protection from the near vacuum of space in the event of an accident.
“We’ve been working on getting a suit for personal spaceflight for a long time,” Greason says. Neither he nor Orbital officials would discuss any of the key proprietary aspects of the suit, but Orbital has come up with an “innovative strategy” to meet the wearer’s needs, Greason says. The key requirement is that the suits be affordable, available in a range of sizes, and flexible and comfortable in their unpressurized state. In the event of a loss of pressure at the top of a craft’s flight into space–XCor’s planned Xerus craft would ascend to about 350,000 feet–the suit would need to inflate quickly to provide full life support.
Existing space suits like those designed for the shuttle, Greason says, “are really for a cadre of very well-trained, highly motivated astronauts.” For the new rockets, “we need life support to handle the less trained participant.” And with his own six-foot-two, long-waisted, and slightly pudgy frame, he says, “I myself don’t fit any existing space suit.”
While depressurization in space is considered extremely unlikely, Greason says, it’s important to be prepared, just in case. “We couldn’t convince ourselves [a problem] was not possible,” he says. “A large fraction of fatalities in government-sponsored programs were preventable.” In the Soyuz 11 flight in 1971, in which three cosmonauts died, and in the Challenger shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts in 1986, the crews might have survived if they had been provided with the pressure suits that are now given to all crews.