This project began in 1977 at the Houston Space Center in Texas; ten-year old Cameron Smith, visiting with his parents, was struck with the mind-boggling size of the Saturn V rocket on display and began a five-year project of writing to all astronauts (and a few cosmonauts) asking them how to realize his dream to get into space. Many replied. But the dream went into hibernation as NASA fossilized into a bureacuracy unable to deliver on its promises to explore Mars. Forward 30 years and the dream was revived 39,000 feet above Nevada. There, looking out an airliner window, Dr. Cameron M. Smith–now an archaeologist with a passion for adventure–looked down upon towers of cloud and canyons of light. After 25 years of exploring the surface of the Earth, mountaineering, sailing and exploring Arctic Alaska and Iceland, he was compelled to finally explore the air. Gliding, however, didn’t do it; you couldn’t go high enough or far enough. Ballooning, then; you could stay up for days. And, as Cameron researched the annals of flight, he found that you could go very high. He decided on a balloon: he would build it himself, and fly high…to 50,000 feet, about as high as he could get in a home-built craft. A pressurized gondola for this altitude was too complicated and too large to build at home, so he set to building an open gondola and a pressure suit, as had been done with crude but effective methods in the 1930’s, long before the post-War government involvement with the stratosphere. The year 2008 was spent in research, poring over patents, and building the pressuresuit consumed 2009 to early 2013, built at home from hardware-store parts and a handful of ex-military items (such as a pressure helmet) purchased on ebay.
Cameron’s project was noticed by WIRED magazine, and their story was noticed by Kristian von Bengtson, co-founder with Peter Madsen of Copenhagen Suborbitals; they needed a pressure suit for their DIY manned rocket flight. An email in 2013 put the three in touch, and Cameron quickly agreed to bring the suit to Copenhagen for demonstrations in August. Working with a team of volunteers, Dr. Smith rushed preparation of the suit and flew to Copenhagen with his expedition partner of 15 years, John F. Haslett. The suit was demonstrated, Peter and Kristian each put it on, and basic tests of its compatability with Copenhagen Suborbitals’ Tycho capsule were carried out. The suit was tested in an altitude chamber and a free-fall chamber. Plenty was learned.
Back in Portland, Cameron founded the informal research and development club, Pacific Spaceflight, an umbrella for several projects, including building a series of pressure suits for capsule development, water-landing training, and eventual use in Copenhagen Suborbitals’ manned rocket flights.
Pacific Spaceflight is currently developing its calendar for preparing to return to Copenhagen in summer 2014 to begin integrating a prototype pressure suit to the capsule and introduce water-landing training to the Copenhagen Suborbitals team. In early 2014 Pacific Spaceflight will finally move out of Cameron’s apartment and into a light-industry workspace in downtown Portland, Oregon. There they will build a full-size, seaworthy mockup of the Tycho capsule for water procedures development—to be carried out locally on the Willammette and Columbia Rivers–and two water training pressure suits.
Pacific Spaceflight is also developing a pressure suit for an open-gondola balloon expedition to 65,000 feet (19,000m), to test the suit and its life-support system (‘Expedition FL650′). The arrangement is that Copenhagen Suborbitals will build the ‘top end’ (balloon and its hardware) while Pacific Spaceflight will build the ‘bottom end’ (gondola, seat, pressure suit and life-support system). As currently planned, the test flight, to be carried out with Copenhagen Suborbitals unique fleet of watercraft, will be a maritime operation, launching from, flying over, and landing in the Baltic Sea.
You can learn more about the early development of the pressure suit project and Dr. Smith’s space exploration endeavors at the following links:
Dr. Smith’s book, “Emigrating Beyond Earth: Human Adaptation and Space Colonization” (Praxis 2012):
Twitter Updates: https://twitter.com/Pacific_Space
Destination DIY radio feature on the pressure suit project:
Slate.com coverage via radio show on the pressure suit project:
The original YouTube video of Dr. Smith’s creation, posted to his personal site in 2009:
KOIN-TV (Portland, OR) story on Dr. Smith’s project, just before it was formalized under the Pacific Spaceflight umbrella:
Copenhagen Suborbitals’ first suitup and pressurization of the first garment:
A recent feature, by Dr. Smith, in Scientific American, putting the increased access to space into a larger context:
A radio interview, on the same topic, by Dr. Smith on a Scientific American podcast:
A feature at the newly-resurrected OMNI magazine, on sex in interstellar migration:
A feature the influential Centauri Dreams blog, on the biology of multigenerational human interstellar voyaging:
Dr. Smith’s recent Plenary Address at the Mars Society:
Pacific Spaceflight site:
Dr. Smith’s informal blog:
Dr. Smith’s Academia.edu Website:
Dr. Smith’s personal website:
Dr. Smith’s media sheet:
THE PRESSURE SUIT
Pacific Spaceflight’s first pressure suit is a proof-of-concept model, the Mark I Gagarin. It is provisionally rated to sustain human life at 50,000 feet, so it is not suitable for the 2015 balloon flight to 65,000 feet. The garment consists largely of four layers. The first layer, worn closest to the skin, is the thermal garment, which is a one-piece ‘long john’ for insulation, but also laced with 11m of plastic hose, through which coolant fluid hose is pumped to keep the occupant cool. The second layer is the gas retention bladder, which contains suit pressurization gas at up to 4psi (.272 atmospheres / 206.85 mmHg / 0.2757 bar), though the operational pressure is somewhat lower to allow mobility. This layer is composed of a modified diving drysuit that includes customized gloves and a Soviet-era high-altitude aviation pressure helmet, model GsH-6a; this helmet is rated to only 39,370 feet MSL (12km), but has been heavily modified. The third layer is the pressure restraint garment, a carefullly-tailored and hand-stitched layer of nonelastic mesh that contains the mechanical load of the gas retention layer, putting the the pilot into a rather more crouched / seated posture than the ‘spread eagle’ posture that would be taken if it were not shaping the gas retention bladder. The fourth layer is a flight coverall; this is a flameproof garment that covers loops on the pressure restraint layer that might become entangled in the capsule, supplies pockets for charts and survival items, includes patches for checklists on the forearms, and has through-ports for gas and electrical fittings that plug into the gas retention layer.
The Gagarin suit has been pressurized over 100 times (formal test logs will begin in 2014) and has never suffered a rapid decompression; its leak rate is comparable to full-pressure garments of the 1950’s, and (like everything), this is being improved.
Currently the Gagarin maintains tolerable suit pressure and blood oxygenation for periods up to 40 minutes at pressures up to 3.5 psi (.238 atmospheres / 181.00 mmHg / 0.2413 bar), allowing a restricted (but somewhat tolerable) measure of mobility. High priorities in redesign and building of the next generation suit include increasing mobility with constant-volume joints, improving communications with a simple cockpit plug-in intercom, improving flotation in the event of a flotation device failure, building a heating system, building a new helmet from scratch, improving the CO2 dump system, incorporating a personal parachute pack that itself must include a 10-minute breathing gas supply, a proper flotation system and water-survival supplies, and a materials review to rate the entire system for use with 100% Aviator’s Breathing Oxygen.
You can learn about the Gagarin’s first altitude chamber test in Pacific Spaceflight’s first Research Brief, #2013-1:
The Gagarin was largely built to demonstrate that a home-built pressure garment could be used to reasonably reduce the problem of altitude decompression sickness, the main problem that occurs if a spacecraft loses cabin pressure. It is not meant for ‘EVA’ or ‘extravehicular activity’, such as spacewalk. You can learn more about altitude decompression sickness in Pacific Spaceflight’s second Research Brief, #2013-2:
Raw video of an immersion test, in which Dr. Smith wore the suit under 10 feet (3m) of water, while pressurized, for 10 minutes, can be seen here (thanks to FRANK FILM):
An early test of the suit for the Tycho Capsule configuration can be seen here:
A 15-second clip of a breathing gas system test may be seen here:
The first altitude chamber test, Copenhagen 2013, may be seen here:
Pacific Spaceflight is an informal group of volunteers working to fulfill a number of space-related objectives. Their chief aim is to reduce the cost of access to space by designing, building and testing ‘Launch-Entry’ suits, pressurized garments (informally known as ‘space suits’) meant to keep spacecraft occupants in good health in the event of a cabin decompression during launch to, or return from, Low Earth Orbit. These suits must also be fitted with supplies for medium-altitude bailouts and survival on land or water for some period before rescue or pickup.
The Pacific Spaceflight team consists of volunteers working weekly at Dr. Smith’s home workshop in Portland, Oregon, though operation will move to a light-industry workshop in early 2014. The team is led by Dr. Cameron M. Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University’s Department of Anthropology with a long interest in space exploration; Dr. Smith designed and built a pressure garment from 2009 to 2013, at which time he began to work with a team rather than alone. John F. Haslett is an author and explorer who has worked with Dr. Smith on sailing and ice cap expeditions since 1998; he is the author of The Lost Raft. Bruce Mataya is a retired engineering technician who has worked on Formula 1 technologies and NASA Mars rover systems. Alexander Knapton is a biochemistry major with a particular interest in long-duration spaceflight technologies. Nicholas Walleri has interests in evolutionary psychology and pressure garment history. Kit MacAllister, a graphics design major, is building our website and overall design. Washoe Magruder is studying environmental science and anthropology and has been pressurized in the suit many times. Ben Wilson has strong interests in anthropology and is active as a test subject in our pressure garments. We are currently formalizing team member roles and responsibilities, and developing a master schedule for the next two years.