Space Women

An Informal Time-In-Suit Endurance Record

One of the female test subjects was so enthusiastic and dedicated that she insisted on being given the opportunity to break the record for time in a suit at vacuum. This was our informal record for time in a single EVA simulation in a vacuum chamber test, not for total EVA time for multiple missions. It was an informal record that our test team and test subjects kept up with, not something that NASA promoted. Some of the actual Shuttle EVAs may have been longer. Our informal record was a little over 8 hours and until that time was held by a branch manager of the contractor supporting the space suit program.

Special permission had to be obtained from the flight medicine office and the safety office to exceed a safety limit of 6 hours at vacuum. Adequate justification based on the test objectives had to be provided to obtain permission. Occasionally there was a need to show that the space suit system had the capacity to operate for its maximum operational time. When the next long endurance test of that type came along, we obtained the required approval and scheduled the woman as test subject.

Of course, more time is required in the suit than just the time at vacuum. First is the pre-breathe period, (four hours for women at that time), then depressurization to vacuum (about 30 minutes) and repress back to normal pressure at the end of the run (another 30 minutes). So add at least 5 hours to the time at vacuum and our female test subject was in the suit for a little over 13 hours without a break and most of the time at vacuum was spent exercising. The only thing to eat in a shuttle space suit is a fruit bar (she requested that it be left out of her suit) and the only water available had to be sucked from a plastic bag at body-temperature. The test subject was exhausted at the end of the run and was ready for a pizza but was proud of her accomplishment.

The test safety officer and the medical officer almost didn't let us exceed the 8-hour limit by the few minutes we thought would be necessary to insure that we had exceeded the previous record. They knew that the extra few minutes were being added just to satisfy the test subject's whim and wanted to insist that we abide by the time we had requested permission for. They finally agreed with us that we had permission for 8 hours of actual exercise time and that the extra minutes were required for start-up at vacuum and for systems shutdown before chamber repressurization was started. Actually, if we had requested the extra few minutes in advance, it probably would have been approved anyway.

NOTE: I have just read in The World Book Year Book for 2002 that Susan Helms and James Voss set a record for the longest spacewalk - 8 hours, 56 minutes - during their time on the Space Station in early 2001. That time would have been time at vacuum. They would have been in the suits for an additional hour or two for a total in-suit time of maybe 11 hours.


Shuttle EMU Space Suit Donning Sequence

Test Subject in Shuttle Airlock Simulator This is the test subject. In this photo she is donning the LTA (Lower Torso Assembly) in preparation for a Shuttle EVA evaluation test in the Shuttle Airlock Vacuum Facility. She has already donned the LCVG (Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment). She is sitting on a pad provided to protect the LTA from the aluminum floor of the facility. The HUT (Hard Upper Torso) connected to the PLSS (Primary Life Support System) is in the upper right of the photo. The HUT and PLSS are bolted together and weigh about 90 kilograms (200 pounds) total. They are supported by a special weight relief system suspended from the top of the facility. All these assemblies together make up the EMU (Extra-vehicular Mobility Unit). This is not the facility in which she made the long endurance record.
Donning Step 2a As a final evaluation before astronauts were to perform dry runs in this facility set up to test tools for the Hubble Space Telescope launching mission, we asked a young female engineer from our office (not a qualified test subject) to try out the mobility and reach to the various test fixtures. In this photo she has donned the lower torso and is beginning the process of donning the upper torso. This is not a 'real' space suit. The upper and lower torsos are flight suits that were 'downgraded' for training purposes. The 'life support system' on the back is just a weighted shell with air ventilation tubes and water tubes built in. Air flow and pressurization is provided from a pressurized, certified breathing air supply.
Donning Step 2b Because the upper torso, with life support system attached, is so heavy it must be held up by a 'weight relief' system in 1-G, donning requires the subject to crawl up into the upper torso while trying to place hands and arms through the suit arms and keep the head in position to squeeze through the neck ring.
Donning Step 3 Subjects head is through the neckring and arms are through the sleeves. Suit technicians are adjusting the sleeves of the water cooled undergarment (LCVG). A simple, efficient lab cooler system provides cold water for the LCVG; a small electric pump pumps water from a ice chest to the suit. The communications headset is hanging down the front of the suit and the waist ring connection between the upper and lower torsos has not yet been made.
Donning Step 4 The test subject has now donned the headset and gloves. The waistring has been connected and the technicians are adjusting the gloves for best fit.
Donning Step Complete With helmet installed, the donning is complete. The technicians adjust suit air flow and pressure with controls in the air line.

The subject is preparing to step over the threshold of the open door into the chamber. This is a difficult step because the pressurized suit legs are hard to bend. People with longer legs have less difficultly bending the legs. However, in this facility, the weight relief system works better for short people so the difficulty of getting through the door is a tradeoff.

The weight relief system runs on a track over head. When the door is opened between airlock and chamber, the track rolls into the door on a track of its own and locks to the track inside the chamber.

PAGE ONE - Brief summary of the records of the first women in space. Kathy Sullivan just barely misses an opportunity to be the first woman to do an EVA. More photos.
PAGE TWO - A time-in-suit record is set. Photos of female test subjects during sequence of suit donning steps.
PAGE THREE - More photos of Kathy Sullivan during vacuum chamber dry-run activities for the Hubble Space Telescope Tools Test.


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Posted: 7/30/03