Space Suit of the Week

31 05 2011

A quick note today on a very excellent blog series called Space Suit of the Week.  Its weekly contributions feature, unsurprisingly, space suits as they appear in art, culture and history.

While entries vary in style from edgy or morbid to fascinating and  fun, the posts carry readers on a romp through some of the most identifiable imagery in our collective psyche.  It’s quite awesome.

The series is actually a sub-part of the The Fox is Black blog, which is billed as an “art and design website that seeks to discover and share the most interesting, beautiful and inspiring parts of contemporary life.”  I’d say that space exploration definitely fits the bill. 

Check it out if you get a chance.

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Military powered exo-skeleton to create future SuperAstronauts?

15 08 2010

Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeleton field trial. Credit: Lockheed Martin

A quick note today on emergent technology.  Right now, aerospace and defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin is working with the military to develop the HULC exoskeleton.  (That’s “Human Universal Load Carrier.”)

The exoskeleton, which is moving into human beta-testing now, improves the endurance and load-carrying capacity of a given person nearly an order of magnitude.

My immediate thought turns to the non-military, obviously, and to considering what an asset technology like this would be to a future astronaut.  Imagine navigating rough planetary terrain loaded up with scientific equipment.  That crater slope too steep?  Never fear – HULC is here!

Rough terrain faces future planetary explorers. Credit: NASA

Seriously – one of the most practical aspects of powered exoskeleton technology may be in future planetary astronaut logistics, where a small number of people will be in the position to perform any number of jobs.  In addition to extending or quickening scientific sorties, imagine the logistics of unloading a drop-shipment of crates at a future moonbase.  With technology like this, it would be possible for an astronaut to act as both scientific investigator and powered loader, minimizing the amount of equipment to haul up to the moon while maximizing the number of things an astronaut could do on a single EVA.  Something to consider.

See Lockheed Martin’s promotional video of the HULC in action here.





Astrowright Academy, t-minus 30 days

17 07 2010

The UND Constellation spaceflight simulator. Credit: Space.edu

Well, it’s official.  I’m accepted, registered, and signed up to begin the University of North Dakota’s Master’s of Science in Space Studies program this fall.  The program is the first of its kind in the country, starting in the 1980s with state-of-the-art facilities, simulators, and a breadth of interdisciplinary course offerings, from orbital dynamics to the management of space organizations.

An overview of the history of the program can be found here.

I’m hoping to find a way to unify my geology and planetary science background with my current professional experience in radiation physics to make a mean astronaut cocktail – which sounds frankly like an untapped synergy in the current astronaut-hopeful pool.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’ve been waiting to be a part of a program like this my entire life.  =)





Orbital Skydive = Spacecraft Escape

16 07 2010

Diagram of the jump altitude/flight profile of the SpaceDiver program. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

It looks as though something of a duel is afoot between two ventures vying to be the first to break the sky dive altitude record set by military high-altitude-balloon-jumper Colonel Joe Kittinger in 1960.  The magic number?  -A staggering altitude of 102,800 feet above the Earth’s surface.

Whoever is the first to do it will have to weather extreme cold and near-vacuum followed by intense heat and, likely, intense physical forces as the diver himself breaks the speed of sound.  And, no matter who is the first to do so, the ultimate winners may be future commercial astronauts.  Thanks to these potential attempts, the final practical outcome could be a field-tested emergency space escape method, ready in case something goes wrong during launch.

In one corner, we have private spacesuit manufacturer Orbital Outfitters founder Rick Tumlinson, who is spearheading an attempt for an orbital skydive under the name SpaceDiver.  The project began back in 2007; however, details are scarce and rumors say that the original potential diver has died with others lining up to take his place.  No word exists on recent progress.

Skydiver Felix Baumgartner, seen performing a high-altitude training jump on May 27, 2010. Credit: Red Bull Stratos

In the other corner, sponsored by Red Bull, is a more recently-announced program by Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner under the tutelage of Colonel Joe Kittinger himself.  The project is called Red Bull Stratos and as far as readily-available information would have me believe, is much closer to breaking the Kittinger record.

At least one 24,000-foot test dive has already been completed, and all press material indicates that the space dive is scheduled for later this year somewhere over North America.

So – aside from the safe return of these brave, intrepid souls, it’s my hope that these attempts generate some press, public excitement, useful data, and prove the concept for getting us future astronauts-to-be the heck out of a tumbling, malfunctioning spacecraft that would in the absence of another way down hurtle us to certain death.

I’m further excited that Red Bull is behind what amounts to an extreme space sport – what with the Rocket Racing League also getting off the ground, the 21st Century looks like it might actually live up to some of our “flying car” expectations…





Book Alert: Spacesuits (from Smithsonian)

15 07 2010

A note on a a recently released book – entitled Spacesuits – by Amanda Young with photos by Mark Avino.  Released by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the book includes never-before-seen images, plain language history, and gripping tales of the clothing that stood between our first off-world explorers and certain death.  A must-have for the coffee table repertoire.  Check it out here.

Spacesuits, a new book from Smithsonian. Credit: powerHouse Books





Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.








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