Tech

Meet the DIY spacesuit designer who wants to keep Mars living affordable

Travis J. StantonCameron Smith, left, dons his homemade spacesuit after a hot-air balloon trial in the desert.

Cameron Smith’s cramped apartment resembles a makeshift NASA lab. Swatches of flame-resistant textiles cover workbenches and drafting tables. Plastic drawers spill over with tools and tubes. Mannequin heads rest crookedly on shelves, while cork boards disappear beneath sticky notes. Tanks of compressed gas lie expectantly on the floor.

Through trial and error, though mostly error, Smith has spent the past eight years designing what he hopes will become the lightest and most affordable spacesuit yet. This summer, he’s planning to test the pressurized suit from thousands of feet in the air while riding in a hot-air balloon.

Smith, who teaches archaeology at Portland State University during the day, said his mission is both philosophical and practical.

He wants to prove that space exploration isn’t exclusive to government agencies or deep-pocketed tourists; anybody should be able to join the space race.

He also believes that, in order for humans to survive, we’ll need to colonize other planets. But we can’t become a multi-planet species if space gear remains prohibitively expensive.

excited to start flying again this Spring / Summer, will be back in wilds of remote SE Oregon and NW Nevada, lots of space, few power lines! pic.twitter.com/S5ixiL6vhC

— Pacific Spaceflight (@Pacific_Space) March 15, 2017

"Building and using these things should be made a little more common," he said by phone from his 750-square-foot apartment-lab. "Then the mystique of the spacesuit, and subsequently the entire concept of space colonization — that just dissolves."

Smith said he finally landed on a solid spacesuit design after seven major revisions. The body suit, which includes boots, is made from several layers of advanced textiles that are strong enough to prevent even a pinhole-sized leak. Rubberized gloves attach to the suit with hose clamps.

Then there’s the helmet. Initially, Smith used a high-altitude aviation helmet from the former Soviet Union, which he purchased on eBay for $350 and retooled to make gas-tight. Recently, however, he ditched the fiberglass model and made his own ultra-resistant fabric helmet.

standing around with enough compressed gas to blow up the whole place 🙂 next pressure test tomorrow, Sat 05 Nov! pic.twitter.com/agcYnxWvph

— Pacific Spaceflight (@Pacific_Space) November 4, 2016

‘eventful’ immersion night, problems prevented full test, problems known and fixable but frustrating at this point. analyze & move forward! pic.twitter.com/k07ILC76OC

— Pacific Spaceflight (@Pacific_Space) November 19, 2016

Flexible hoses run throughout the garment to maintain safe air pressure and oxygen levels. From his apartment, Smith and a handful of partners have run a battery of tests on the suit to ensure it can withstand sweeping pressure changes without exploding or leaking. At the altitudes Smith hopes to reach, even a whisper of a leak can be lethal.

The archeologist-turned-astronaut said he’s spent around $20,000 on the venture since 2009, mainly for materials, redesigns, and testing. But his costs are likely to climb significantly in coming years as he carries out multiple missions in the hot-air balloon.

This summer, Smith and his team will launch the balloon from the wide open desert somewhere in the American West, free of air traffic and electricity lines.

wrkd on blloon this wkend, will fly suits 2 high alts in bloon 2 test just as NASA in early days. installed suit controller & other systems. pic.twitter.com/uaFbbVuorn

— Pacific Spaceflight (@Pacific_Space) January 30, 2017

They’ll begin at 5,000 feet, then 10,000 feet, and so on, progressively working their way to 63,000 feet — the so-called Armstrong limit. At that height, atmospheric conditions begin to resemble those in space, and anybody without a pressurized space suit is instantly knocked unconscious.

"We’re going to use the natural world as our altitude chamber," he said, adding, "We’re going to do it very slowly."

At the lower heights, a partner will wear the spacesuit while Smith, wearing only an oxygen rig, will observe how the suit performs from the outside. Beyond that, Smith will ride solo in the suit, communicating his measurements and status to friends below.

video still at 3.5psi, still ok elbow mobility also jump/bounce test failed to burst any part of system! soon hereafter had 4.0 psi pic.twitter.com/tpGa5qCvS4

— Pacific Spaceflight (@Pacific_Space) October 29, 2016

Smith originally planned to live-test his suit back in August 2014, when he was partnering with an amateur space firm called Copenhagen Suborbitals. He planned to fly in their high-altitude balloon to around 25,000 feet, and climb even higher in subsequent flights.

But those plans fell apart after the company reorganized. Smith then decided to buy his own balloon and take matters into his own hands. That also meant redesigning his spacesuit for a standing-only position in the balloon’s basket.

Image: Cameron m. smith

"I had to change my plans entirely, and simply do it all by myself," he recalled. "I found that if I rely on somebody else, I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen."

Through all of these efforts, Smith said he hopes to eventually develop a spacesuit that costs around $1,000 and weighs only 11 pounds. He wants it to be the "Ford pick-up truck" of spacesuits — one that any mechanic could repair — and not an exotic, futuristic machine that only few can fix.

"When you’re living on Mars, and if something goes wrong with your suit, I want these suits to be repairable by just about anybody," he said.

"It must be simplified. It can’t be this highly rarified object."

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