Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager Dustin Gohmert discusses Orion spacesuit design.
The design of spacesuits that astronauts will wear inside the Orion spacecraft, which will carry the crew farther than humans have gone before, is approximately 90 percent complete. In the first of a three-part series on new spacesuit design, Gohmert provides an overview of the Orion spacesuit design and challenges the team has faced while building the next-generation suit.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Key elements of the Orion spacesuit
- Design considerations for long-duration operations
- The status of the Orion spacesuit design activity
Dustin Gohmert is the Project Manager for Orion Crew Survival Systems, which includes spacesuits, survival kits, life raft, escape ladder and escape winch. Gohmert has served as System Manager for Orion Crew Survival, EC5Crew Survival Engineering Team Lead, and Deputy Lead for Commercial Crew Survival Engineering. He supported the Columbia Team Accident Investigation and implementation of survival recommendations for the space shuttle. Gohmert earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a master’s in engineering from the University of Texas.
Dustin Gohmert: Safety was really the key driver for the design of this suit as all spacesuits have been.
We wanted to make sure form followed function — function being the absolutely key for us. It has to work, and we’ll address the cosmetics of it later.
The suit has been a whole lot of fun to design.
Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
As NASA gears up to return to the Moon in a sustainable way to prepare for sending astronauts to Mars, experts are working to overcome the challenges of building next-generation spacesuits capable of withstanding the extreme environment of space.
Today on the Small Steps, Giant Leaps podcast, we begin a three-part series on the design of new spacesuits. We’ll start with an overview of the spacesuit astronauts will wear in NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The exploration vehicle will carry the crew to space – farther than ever before for humans — sustain the crew during space travel, and provide safe re-entry.
Our conversation is with Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager Dustin Gohmert.
Dustin, thank you for joining us on the podcast.
Gohmert: Well, thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here and excited to talk about the work that we’re doing on the Orion spacesuits.
Host: Let’s start by painting a picture of the Orion spacesuit. For anyone who hasn’t seen it what does it look like?
Gohmert: Well it’s – you know at first glance, it’s a strange thing because to the general audience it may look strikingly similar to what we flew in the Space Shuttle Program. The orange ACES suit, which was the Advanced Crew Escape Suit. It was commonly by the general public called the pumpkin suit because of its orange color. This suit is a derivative of that in that we’ve adapted over time to take some of its key feature, that color being one of them. So, in general, as I describe it to you keep in mind that historic heritage pumpkin suit if you might. But we’ve taken a lot of the limitations that are presented to us in the shuttle program and enhanced it with lessons learned over previous spaceflight programs and so it has very much become an adaptation of that shuttle suit plus features from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo program all wrapped into one along with some new features that we’ve never incorporated before.
Host: What differentiates the Orion spacesuit from previous spacesuits?
Gohmert: That’s a good question. It’s also a difficult one to answer without being too presumptive. In the big context spacesuits are largely anthropometrically unchanged from what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, for example. I like to describe it to folks as a body-shaped balloon. It provides you your own personal, habitable volume. What we’ve really done with the Orion Program is tried to look at what all the smart folks before us had done and take the best features of each, learn from some of the limitations of each that we had experienced through the years, and really adapt them for the first time from truly the ground up to make it 100 percent integrated to the vehicle such that there is no discontinuity between functionality and safety. Safety was really the key driver for the design of this suit as all spacesuits have been, but to have the opportunity to start at the same time as the vehicle and build every single facet of the suit’s functionality in with the vehicle’s functionality has been a great opportunity.
I would probably say that the ability to survive long-term in this suit is one that we’ve stretched further than any previous suit that’s come before us, but it’s not to say that we’ve done it on our own without the lessons we’ve taken from those previous suits. So, we have to give credit where credit is due and I’d like to think we’ve taken what’s come before us and just taken it to the next step with the opportunities afforded us with modern technology.
Host: What are a few of the dramatic safety improvements with the Orion spacesuit design and how have the lesson learned from the Space Shuttle Columbia accident influenced the overall design?
Gohmert: That’s a great question, too, to expand on. I was here, I had actually just started at NASA when the Columbia accident happened and I was working in the group that managed the Advanced Crew Escape Suit at the time. And for years after that accident we spent our days researching what had gone wrong in the accident, but also what were the deficiencies in our systems that could have potentially protected the crew? And we collectively came up with a myriad of circumstances that were potential upgrades to the suit that could’ve made the circumstance more survivable. I want to be very cautious with that. That accident was an unsurvivable tragedy, but we did find individual facets of it that we could take and improve upon.
For example, we knew that very traumatic, dynamic events occurred to the crew members aboard due to comprised restraint within the seat and compromised function of the suit as well due to limitations of the spacesuit architecture on the shuttle. So we from the ground up actually figured out how do we make this suit first off integrate to the seat 100 percent and not kind of, sort of, one-size-fits-all, but make it so that one size can be adjusted to fit everyone perfectly as if it’s their own suit and their own seat as in a NASCAR race would be where the occupants have the perfect protection system encapsulated around their body
We also looked at how can we make the system autonomous such that the crew doesn’t have to take any actions whatsoever to protect them in the event of, for example, a capsule depressurization. Nothing must occur on the crew’s part except really sit along for the ride now and we had to make all of that so transparent to the crew that there was no compromise to their nominal functions. And that’s where safety gets really hard is how to make it work in that level of transparency that the crew doesn’t have any perturbations to their normal operations. And I think given the opportunity to do this from the ground up has really been a boon to us in that we’ve – I think we’ve come up with some pretty good solutions for Orion that will keep the crew safe and keep them very functional applying all those lessons we learned.
Host: Could you describe the key elements of the suit?
Gohmert: The pressure garment itself is kind of the part of the spacesuit that most folks gravitate toward when we describe a spacesuit. The pressure garment, I’ll describe it. If you can imagine a onesie that a small child might wear with the booties that cover the feet for example. So it’s a pressurizable onesie if you might. It zips up/down the back starting with the zipper between mid-shoulder blades and extends down through the crotch and actually wraps around to the front of the torso. So the crew member would unzip it and put one leg in at a time like a regular pair of pants and poke their head through the neck ring of the suit and the arms as well and just zip it up. So it’s not that exotic of an architecture until you really start decomposing how that’s built.
And so the primary core of this onesie that is the body-shaped balloon as I previously described it is the pressurizable layer. In fancy terms we call it the gas container, but we also commonly call it the bladder. And this gas container is what actually holds the pressure around the body. And this is important because what this does is it really creates your own personal atmosphere. For lack of atmosphere in space we don’t have anything else to keep that air around our body that keeps that pressure in our lungs, that keeps our blood from reaching effectively boiling point at the higher altitudes, and so this is what holds it all in.
Now if you’ve ever watched a person blow a balloon up with too much pressure, you know that they have a tendency to pop. Same with these suits. And so the second layer of that suit of this onesie is integrated what we call the restraint layer. The restraint layer is what holds all of that together so this is a very, very strong layer of fabric that’s built with extremely robust seams and so as that bladder tries to expand around us from the pressure inside the suit that it will hold, the restraint layer holds it all together and keeps it sound.
Above that is one final layer, and that’s what we call the cover layer. That’s the orange part that everyone sees. And the cover layer is where we do all the tricks of integrating the safety features that the crew might need for post-landing, rescue straps, for example, integration of emergency oxygen bottles that we have in the system as well as any other features they’d need. And this is the orange layer. It’s also Nomex®, which is for flame retardancy. And it’s also built to withstand any kind of abrasions to the suit that might also damage either the restraint or the cover layer.
So we’ve tried really hard to build these three layers in unison such that once they’re donned it’s a single garment for the crew that is easy to put on, easy to take off, and not a compromise in any way to wear. The mobility of it unpressurized is very much like the clothes that you or I may have on today. Granted, it’s probably a little hotter given all the three layers that they wear, but we have other solutions for that that we’ll get into I’m sure in a little while as well.
Now over that in this garment we put the helmet on, of course. Folks have seen the white, fiberglass helmet that we’ll wear over this suit, and that now is built in two sizes – a large, which is the common historical size that we use for the male architecture. But we’ve also taken the opportunity of this program to build a second size helmet, which is for the smaller end of the anthropometric spectrum, most notably to help accommodate the smaller female population that has historically been more difficult to size in heritage male-patterned suits. So this has very much been a really cool opportunity for us to really stretch the bounds of design and make all of these fit truly the whole population.
A final component of that that might be the gloves. And our gloves are built very much to mimic flight gloves as a pilot may wear and give that unpressurized functionality. At pressure they will function as well and give the dexterity the crew has needed, but they’re not built to the same level as what an EVA glove might be. And the reason for that is the abrasion protection that goes into those gloves adds considerable bulk, which is necessary for microgravity exposed space operations, but would be a compromise to the nominal piloting functions we require intra-vehicle for this suit.
Those are the key components; we have some boots that go on it as well. We have life preservers integrated to the cover layer of the suit. We have some survival gear integrated to the suit as well in case of an emergency egress post-landing in the water. We have oxygen bottles that integrate to the suit as well to give us the capability to, say, leave the pad in an emergency in case there was a leak of a chemical or post-landing in case of any other off-nominal environmental hazardous exposure. One cool thing we were able to do was take advantage of carrying those bottles and actually give the crew the option to use them on orbit for the first time. Being filled with oxygen they’re able to sustain life at the lower pressures of the suit that we would have in orbit and give them actually a back-up even from the vehicle or, thinking down the road, give us contingency capabilities for transfers from one vehicle to the next perhaps. The sky is not even the limit so to speak in what we can do with this suit in the future.
Host: What is the biggest innovation introduced to the suit architecture?
Gohmert: As silly as this might sound it’s not in the suit itself as we look at it, but it’s what’s under the suit and it comes in the form of the waste management system for the suit. Given that our concept of operations may require us to survive up to six days to do a contingency return from deep space or lunar orbit, we have to be able to manage all bodily functions of this suit, which the challenge has been considerably higher than it has been in the past, one, because of the longer durations, and two, because of the now accommodation of both male and female operators in the suit.
In Apollo we did that as an agency but you had – it was solely a male crew, which is – the designs for the adaptations to the body are more focused. We have a diverser range of problems to solve in accommodating both male and female and now we’re also talking about not only accommodating urine output but also fecal output. So we had to figure out how do we provide nutrition, but how do we take care of the consequences of that nutrition, which is bodily waste. And while I said the suit in terms of its shape and its function as a body-shaped balloon, in theory, it’s arguably the same as what it has been for 50-plus years. But the waste management solutions and all the tricks of the trade that go on inside that suit long-duration have very much advanced since those times.
Host: So you talked about all-male crews in the early days and how things have changed. How do you determine the sizing parameters for the spacesuit?
Gohmert: It’s an interesting thing when you work in spacesuits you stop looking at people in terms of, “Hey, he’s tall or she’s short,” or those kinds of concepts, and you start looking at people very strangely in terms of “You have a very long upper arm segment or your shin is longer than your thigh.” Very strange things that most people wouldn’t consider. But we have to start looking at each individual segment of the body from your elbow to your wrist and your elbow to your shoulder, your crotch to your shoulder. Everything is measured, and after a while you start to realize that overall height is actually – it’s the metric that most people think of when they think of tall or short. It’s actually one of the most useless metrics we have in sizing a spacesuit.
The big difference as though as we’ve really started to look at male and female populations is the differences in shoulder breadth and hip breadth. It’s not a surprise that male and female are generally built differently, especially the astronaut population being a relatively fit population modeled after the Air Force/Army/Navy database as we select from. But we generally find that females have narrower should breadth and, per size-to-size, a wider hip breadth. And that become problematic in the shuttle program because all the suits that we had historically built were still patterned after this idealized 1950s male anatomy with the very broad shoulders and very skinny waste. And so the compromises that had to be made were that we would end up putting them in a size of a suit maybe larger than necessary for them to accommodate hip breadth and then by doing so gave them a suit that swallowed them in terms of their shoulder breadth. And it was very compromising in terms of functionality in the long run had pressurized operations been needed.
So, as we’ve looked at this we’ve really started to take into account the true male versus female anatomy and not even generalizing it to speak, but actually taking every individual person and measuring them to say, “Your shoulder breath is so many inches, your hip breadth is so many inches, your torso length is this, your leg length segment is this,” and building the suit truly to their anatomy, personalizing it.
The helmet — as we made the decision to create two helmets — oddly enough, it had nothing to do with head size. Everyone could fit in the large helmet that we had. It did look somewhat comical on some of the smaller females, but the problem wasn’t that heads didn’t fit properly. The problem was that the helmet became so large it covered the shoulders all the way to the edges of the shoulder. And so when I mentioned you know we’ve taken integrated safety to the vehicle to the next level, I can’t have a helmet that goes all the way to the shoulders and then try to put a seatbelt over their shoulders to try to keep the crew safe. So, oddly enough, things like sizing of the helmet came down not to head size, but to shoulder breadth and so we shrunk the helmet to allow for seatbelts to fit the shoulders. And then, naturally, the helmet itself shrunk, which has its advantages, too. It gives the female population or even males with smaller head diameters a better field of view by keeping them closer to the visor. It also gives them better airflow through the helmet by not creating such a large void in there for air to stagnate in.
So I think I’ve kind of danced around it in a lot of ways here because the answer is a very hard one to give, but it truly is that you have to look at each person for what they are and not try to generically size any suit to a broad, general population, but take them into account as individuals to make what – I don’t want to say the perfect suit, but maybe the perfect suit fit for that person.
Host: And all of these features and everything that you’re taking into consideration does this all play into maximized comfort and functionality during long-duration operations?
Gohmert: Loosely, yes. But I’m very reluctant to use the word comfort in a scenario of six days in a spacesuit. For all the things that we’ve done I have full confidence it’s going to be still a relatively difficult experience for the crew. And so comfort is the goal; tolerability is the key, though. When you have things in the suit, a pressurized suit that fits ill creates pressure spots on the body and these pressure spots in a matter of hours are annoying and, in a matter of more hours, are very painful. And you know when we go do an EVA out on the International Space Station some of those things can be overlooked. You’ll be out there for a period of time where that’s manageable.
In the context of sitting in the suit for up to six days, this 144-hour exposure, those pressure spots that may be resultant of an ill fit become intolerable relatively quickly in the context of that duration. And so – intolerable and unbearable. And so that alone you have to worry about how do you manage this rather difficult situation for the crew both physically and mentally because it all plays in to the big equation there. So looking at it we really strove to make the suit – I use the word tolerable versus comfortable. Comfort is the goal, tolerable is the key to making it work. And, honestly, we’ve done a pretty good jobs in terms of short-term exposure, which we’ve done here in the lab, and I say short-term being several hours at a time in the suit.
We have found it to be very comfortable when we take the time to adjust it uniquely to the person in the suit. And that’s really the key is getting it built to fit to the person. Generic sizing for the kind of things that we’re doing now just doesn’t play in as well. It works in some contexts, short duration. Say I’m on ISS and I need to get home, a looser sizing regime can work just fine because again it comes back to context of time exposure. In our case the time exposure is so extreme that we know it needs to be as spot-on and uniquely tailored to the person as possible.
Another very, very difficult aspect of this suit in terms of design that often is overlooked is that this suit has to function unpressurized and perform many functions of mobility and it also has to function pressurized and perform many functions of comfort, tolerability and mobility. And simple things like I have to lift my leg to climb a ladder or step on a step, we take for granted as we wear a regular pair of pants. But if you were to stand up and, say, lift your foot up and put it on the chair that you had been sitting on you’ll notice that your pants leg rises at your ankles. Well, when you wear a onesie that has to be perfectly sized so there’s no extra length in it when you’re pressurized you realize that that pants leg can’t rise because it’s now wrapped around your foot encapsulating it. And so we have to create unique patterning to allow for that mobility in the zero-pressure posture, i.e. a terrestrial state, and also the fit in the microgravity posture, as in the pressurized state of the suit, and it becomes quite a challenge actually to fit all that in.
You know in comparison if we were to design a suit for only one state such as it’s only used in the pressurized context, you can really, really hone in on that one posture. But our posture is so varied that we have to kind of consider all those, not only anthropometry, but also the range of motion within that anthropometry to really accommodate the crew member.
Host: If something goes wrong, will the suit be repairable in space?
Gohmert: We’ve talked about that and there’s a lot of different aspects that go on with that question. And there’s a lot of different aspects that go on in how we control hazards here at NASA. And so when we look at some things that – we look at every failure mode of every possible scenario and so we say – and we look at it from multiple angles and so you could say, “This generic hazard exists. What is the cause of it?” And so we look at it from the perspective of say, for example, a spacesuit depressurizes. What could cause that? Well, maybe a hole in the suit or maybe a glove became disconnected. We look through every possible cause that could make that hazard happen, and then we look at it the other way. We say, “OK, for example, I know an exact failure mode that I’ve dreamed up, and it’s a hole in the suit, for example. What are the consequences thereof and how do we fix that?”
And so we look at it from both the cause to the consequence, and the consequence to the range of causes, and we try to design in controls for all of them. Sometimes the control is that we have redundancy of the solution in that if, for example, you had a leak in say your umbilical, we could have a control that allowed you to swap the umbilical with a different one or reconfigure your flow architecture to allow you to still receive breathing gas and pressure yet exhaust into the cabin or back to the vehicle in a different manner. Some hazards are rather difficult to control, such as if I was say in the middle of the deep space exposure, depressurized cabin scenario and had a hole develop in the suit. That would be quite difficult to control if it was large enough. Now one of the controls we could have would be we have reserve air that we could pump additional air in and effectively just keep feeding the system despite the leak such that it’s transparent to the crew member.
We also look at what could cause these kinds of things and say now I need this level of protection for this suit to protect any kind of abrasions or damage. I need controls in the vehicle to prevent any sharp edges from existing that could cause that damage. I need to do testing on the suit to understand if it’s impacted in such a way, is it robust enough to withstand those things. And then we might say, “I need to know that this suit is strong enough to withstand this duration.” And we’ll generally test them for that times a factor of safety of up to four times. So when we test this suit for example to say, “I believe that it is safe for 144 hours or 6 days,” it will actually be tested with humans at pressure for durations of four times that to make sure that any margin – to make sure we have margins such that anything we may have overlooked or any unexpected manufacturing items, anything can be accounted for with still significant margin to protect the crew. So, it’s a difficult answer to give. In some cases we have repairs. In some cases we have controls that prevent hazards from occurring.
Host: If you had to choose the single biggest obstacle that you’ve had to overcome in designing the Orion spacesuit, what would it be?
Gohmert: That’s a good question, but I think, you know, the suit has been a whole lot of fun to design and to have been given the freedoms that we were afforded with building this suit. The suit architecture itself, given the opportunities to tailor it as we have have been more fun than challenging. I think the biggest challenge really goes back to that waste management construct that we had spoken of earlier and we struggled with that immensely. We put out crowd-sourced challenges. Folks online may have heard of the space poop challenge we had a few years ago. And we had I want to say it was about 7,000 entries from all over the world on how to manage the waste output of the crew members. And it’s – it racked our brains for quite some time.
And I think we’ve come to an adequate solution, though not the perfect solution, and I think where we struggled the most is when we have to say and accept that we’ve really stretched the bounds of what can be done within the limitations presented to us. I think we always want to go to that next step, and accepting when we’ve reached that peak target of design achievement versus further rate of return on the investment is where we struggle quite a bit. And that’s I think the perfectionist that everybody in this agency wants to have, but you also have to be mindful we have to meet the mission at hand before us and deliver this suit and you know I struggle telling the team, “Sometimes better is the enemy of good enough.” At the same time I hate using that term because in no way do we settle for good enough, but sometimes you have to realize when you’ve reached the design that you need and press ahead so you can develop the rest of the system.
So between the waste management system as a challenge but also accepting when we have to draw the line and move forward has been a challenge to us because we just want to keep making it better and better all the time. But I think where we take a little bit of comfort is that knowing Artemis 3 and Artemis 4 and so on keep coming. We look forward to that and seeing as these mission profiles expand these will give us as the engineers the challenges and opportunities to keep improving on the suit from here on out as long as we’re asked to.
Host: What is the status of the spacesuit design activity?
Gohmert: We are actually approaching within a month’s time, we’re approaching a milestone known as the Critical Design Review. And the Critical Design Review is generally considered 90 percent complete with the design. And that is a pretty big step at this point. We’ve really completed all the generalities of the design, all of the features we’ve vetted them out through testing, we are very high at a technical readiness level into where we are ready to go into a qualification phase to prove out the design.
So, earlier when I mentioned that we would stress test the suits, for example, to prove them out, we are at the point where we are ready to put pencils down on the design and go into those stress and structural testing of the suit to then say, “Yes, it’s absolutely safe enough for our crew, that we have confidence in its abilities for them, and we are ready to go into pure build-to-print manufacturing for delivery once we finish that stage.” So there – to get through all that testing probably is about another year on our side because it’s an exhaustive barrage of tests that have to occur, but from a design standpoint we are very, very close to nearing completion. At this point most of the aspects left on the suit I would say are cosmetic and just things like where am I going to put this patch or where do I put that nametag, what am I putting in that pocket, is that strap really where I want to put it, and we intentionally put those things toward the end.
We wanted to make sure form followed function, function being the absolute key for us. It has to work, and we’ll address the cosmetics of it later, which is honestly a pretty big thing in today’s environment. We’ve been a NASA of old, kind of we’ve accepted the stodginess of the look of the suit and we’re trying pretty hard now to blend in with our commercial partners in having something that not only functions to perfection, but also meets the expectations of the modern environment in that we can relate to and inspire the community at large by seeing these suits and seeing our astronauts in the suit. So, I guess in the big picture, yeah, we want it to look cool too but it has to function perfectly before we really get into that part of tweaking those aesthetics.
Host: Dustin, it has been fabulous having you on the show today. We really do appreciate you joining us on the podcast.
Gohmert: I so much enjoy speaking about the suit, and I’ve had a really good time talking with you.
Host: Any closing thoughts?
Gohmert: Just in general, I and the team that I’m on, we are so excited to see the progress we’re making toward Artemis, and we’re so excited to launch crewmembers into space. And we really hope that the public enjoys it as well along with us. And it’s time for us to go back and make space fun, make space cool, and just enjoy it on the way. What we do here as a nation is so magnificent to be a part of, and we’re grateful for it and proud to be here along the way.
Host: You’ll find links to topics mentioned on the show, along with Dustin’s bio and a transcript, at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast.
On the next episode, we’ll take a closer look at the internal systems of the Orion spacesuit, and we invite you to tune in then.
Thanks for listening.