A Portland State University professor and his team of students are building a space suit using a shoestring budget, hardware-store parts and a whole lot of determination.
Inside Cameron Smith’s studio apartment in the trendy Pearl district of Portland, Oregon, the walls are lined with books and blueprints, and every horizontal surface is covered with tools and parts: zip-ties, duct tape, hose clamps, electrical tape. Framed and signed photographs of astronauts hang between bookshelves, and a hot-air balloon sits in a huge duffel bag by the bed.
Smith, an anthropology professor at Portland State University (PSU), is taking the DIY concept to an entirely new level: he’s building his own suborbital spacesuit — from scratch.
“I was always intrigued by space travel,” Smith said.
As a child he wrote to every American astronaut and a few Russian ones, and received a number of encouraging responses. As an adult he flew in paragliders, trekked solo across the Arctic and sailed rafts built by ancient building techniques off the coast of South America. Those experiences taught him the importance of methodical planning and attention to detail, especially when life is on the line — and tied back in with his interest in exploring the cosmos.
“It began with me on an ice cap thinking wow, you need a spacesuit out here,” he said. “This is like space.”
Starting in 2008, Smith and a team of self-taught PSU students, collectively called Pacific Spaceflight, have been designing and building a suit in Smith’s cramped apartment to take someone to the “Armstrong line” at 63,000 feet — widely considered the edge of space — and bring him or her back safely.
The suit, now in its fourth iteration, is a hodgepodge of recycled or easily available off-the-shelf materials. The inner layer is a set of polypropylene long underwear lined with 30 feet of tubing to circulate ice water. (Overheating is much more of a concern than staying warm, since heat doesn’t radiate well into a near-vacuum.)
Over that goes an old diving drysuit, covered by a layer of non-elastic industrial mesh to help the suit hold its shape when it’s fully pressurized. The outer layer is a flame-resistant coverall, and on top is a bright orange Soviet Air Force helmet Smith found for $400 on Ebay.
As jerrybuilt as it looks, the suit has passed test after test in high-altitude chambers and freezers, as well as repeated dunking in Portland’s Willamette River.
In 2014, Smith wore the Mark III version of the suit in a helicopter to 17,000 feet without any problems.
Pacific Spaceflight has drawn inspiration from NASA archives available for free online. The team is constantly tweaking the design, finding new materials and learning new techniques, from sewing to welding seams.
Smith said the main challenges include things like keeping the visor free of fog and maintaining gas pressure inside the suit.
“You’ll always have some pinhole leaks, but you can make up for it by pumping more air through,” he said.
Mobility is another issue. Flexible pressure suits become rigid when they’re fully inflated, which can make something as simple as reaching out to flick a switch a major effort or even impossible. To solve the problem, the team found an industrial ducting material — a tougher version of the tube that comes out of the back of your dryer — that made the arms much more bendable.
Smith boils down their design experience to a few major lessons. The best design is a crude working prototype, using whatever hardware is available from old systems, as opposed to endless research and theorizing. Also, there is no final design; different missions call for different designs, and flexibility is key.
The price tag? Labor aside, Smith estimates he’s spent less than $10,000 in all. The miniscule budget is part of the point, he said.
Beyond reaching the edge of space, he wants to show that space travel doesn’t have to be ultra-high-tech, limited to governments or private ventures with multimillion-dollar budgets.
Off-the-shelf Russian or NASA suits cost $100,000 and weigh 26 pounds. Smith’s ultimate goal? Weight: 11lbs; cost: $1,000.
“I love his innovative spirit, attention to challenging details and his ‘can fly attitude’,” said Dava Newman, Professor of Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT.
The history of pressure suits goes back to the 1930s, Smith points out, and the early models were as homemade as this one. Even the Apollo moon program was incredibly low-tech by modern standards, operating on punch-card computers with less power than an iPhone.
Most of the Apollo spacesuits were hand cut and sewn; seamstresses borrowed from Playtex sewed the ones Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore during the first moon landing.
“The three layers required for a spacesuit (pressure, restraint and protective) are very straightforward and do not require advanced engineering,” said Cathleen Lewis, a space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“Driving down both costs and weight are the aim for most space projects these days.”
Constantly improving technology, cheaper components and the open-sources available on the internet have made collaboration almost effortless. Some groups are experimenting with crowd-funding and even crowd-sourcing design.
Smith’s suit is part of a larger trend in small-scale spaceflight. Businesses like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are competing with government programs, while others are 3D printing rocket parts and sending satellites into orbit for less than $50,000.
The small-scale trend it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
In October 2014 alone, a private unmanned rocket bound for the International Space Station exploded during lift-off, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in California, killing its pilot.
An inexpensive pressure suit won’t necessarily make it easier for ordinary people to go into space, said Lewis.
“The overwhelming proportion of the cost of sending humans into space is not the cost of the spacesuit, but the cost of a rocket powerful enough to send humans and their environment into space.”
A seat in the Russian Soyuz capsule runs about $65 million, for example, compared to about $50,000 for a Zvezda-manufactured Sokol KV-2 spacesuit.
Nevertheless, Smith and his team are approaching their next goal with a mix of ambition and caution. They recently bought a used hot-air balloon and are designing a custom basket that, if all goes as planned, will carry Smith to 30,000 feet over eastern Washington during Christmas break.
“We’re going to push it really hard,” Smith said. “We’ll make it as light as possible and turn on the burners the whole way up. Any normal balloonist will say you’re crazy, but this is a very special use.”
And even though they’ll test like mad and try to plan for every possible contingency, he’ll still wear a parachute—just in case.