Historic Shuttle Spacesuits To Meet Fiery End
Space shuttle-era spacesuit upper-torsos are serviced and readied for flight inside United Space Alliance's spacesuit lab in Houston, Texas. Originally designed to be reusable, the suits are destined to be disposed of in space due to weight limitations imposed by NASA's new crew spacecraft, Orion.
Credit: NASA

The spacesuit that Ed White wore 42 years ago this week during the first American spacewalk is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Within the same building, visitors can see the spacesuits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore during the first moonwalk.

Indeed, all 31 spacesuits worn by astronauts while either space- or moon-walking during the Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs are now owned by the Smithsonian and are either on exhibit, on loan or being preserved for study by researchers and historians.

If you wanted however, to see a flown spacesuit worn on any of the prior 77 space shuttle extravehicular activities (EVAs, a.k.a. spacewalks) or any of the 53 EVAs made with American spacesuits out of the International Space Station, you would have to look somewhere else than in a museum.

There aren't any on exhibit today and if NASA's plans for the shuttle-era spacesuits hold true, there may be none remaining for the museums to preserve, let alone display.

A few sizes fits many

Like the space shuttle on which they fly, modern NASA spacesuits or extravehicular mobility units, EMUs were designed to be reusable. Whereas Gemini, Apollo and Skylab astronauts wore suits that were sized to the individual, shuttle spacewalkers wear 'off the rack' suits that are available in just a few sizes.

Furthermore, they are mix and match; shuttle astronauts don suits that are assembled from separate upper and lower components, in addition to the helmet, boots and gloves, as well as the portable life support system (PLSS pronounced 'pliss') worn on their back. Each of the parts may have different flight histories, as they were flown in different configurations to compensate for different-sized astronauts.

So for example, the EMU worn by Kathy Sullivan on the first American female EVA in 1984 may have later been divided and flown again as components of any number of other astronauts' spacesuits. It doesn't exist any longer as a complete spacesuit and NASA's records only track the parts by the missions on which they flew rather than by which astronaut wore them.

Even so, museum curators had hoped that when NASA no longer needed all the flown components, that through their own research they could piece together individual spacesuits. That of course assumed that NASA would retire the spacesuit parts such that the museums could obtain them.

Six of one, half a dozen of another

What if you were to try to assemble as many spacesuits as possible from all the different flight components? How many would be there be?

"We have lots of components and a lot of [them] are sized. So the way we answer that question from our internal bookkeeping is 12 and that's really 12 life support systems," explained Stephen Doering, who heads NASA's spacewalk activities office, in an interview with collectSPACE.com. "The limiting factor for a functioning spacesuit would be the PLSS backpack."

In fact, throughout the shuttle program there have been a total of 16 backpacks. Two were destroyed in 1986 when Challenger broke apart, but were later replaced. Two more were lost in 2003 on-board Columbia.

Beyond the PLSS, the hard upper torso (HUT) would be the next component in limited supply, said Doering.

"The limiting factor from a display perspective... is the pressure garment, the gloves, the legs, the arms, the hard upper torso, for which it is not really possible to give you a count," said Doering.

According to Doering, there exists a possible 13th PLSS. "We have one qualification unit that's not flight ready, it's called Class II. And that's the only one out there."

Continue reading on collectSPACE.com to learn why a fiery fate awaits the shuttle spacesuits.

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