The World’s Only Homemade Spacesuit Is About To Get Its First Life-or-Death Test
Cameron Smith has never been to space, but this autumn he’ll get close.
In a few months, Smith and the small team of volunteers that comprise Pacific Spaceflight will travel to an undisclosed location on the West Coast where Smith will don a homemade spacesuit and attempt to pilot a hot air balloon to over 60,000 feet. Beyond this altitude — known as the Armstrong Limit — pressurized enclosures are necessary to prevent exposed body fluids, such as the moisture on your eyes or tongue, from literally boiling away. Direct exposure to the atmosphere above the Armstrong Limit results in a quick and painful death.
Smith’s flight to altitude will be his pressure suit’s first survival test. It’s the culmination of a nearly decade-long endeavor to design and build a functioning, low-cost spacesuit.
This is the story of Pacific Spaceflight, a volunteer-driven organization hellbent on making a spacesuit for the rest of us.
Smith’s journey to the upper atmosphere calls to mind the devil-may-care mindset typical of the early days of space exploration, when air force pilots on both sides of the Iron Curtain risked their neck to advance human spaceflight and secure military advantage in orbit. These pilots were the first humans to test experimental new pressure suits that were meant to sustain life in the upper atmosphere and beyond, and there was little assurance that they would ever return from these crucial tests alive.
In 1960, Joseph Kittinger made history by riding a balloon to 102,000 feet and skydiving to Earth, a world-record jump that wasn’t broken until 2012. Kittinger’s jump was meant to test a high-altitude parachute system, but the jump also pushed the limits of his Air Force issued MC-3 partial pressure suit. If the suit or helmet failed at altitude, Kittinger would’ve lost consciousness within 15 seconds and died within about three minutes. As it so happened, Kittinger’s suit did fail on ascent — the pressure seal on his right glove broke and his hand ended up swelling to twice its normal size before he jumped.
All things considered, however, Kittinger got lucky. Two years after his historic jump, the Soviet air force pilot Pyotr Dolgov rode a balloon to the stratosphere to test an experimental pressure suit. As Dolgov exited the capsule at nearly 94,000 feet, he cracked his visor on the capsule door. This caused his suit to rapidly depressurize and Dolgov died soon thereafter.
When I spoke with Smith on Skype recently, he said the risks involved with making a homebrew spacesuit are always in the back of his mind. Yet for someone like Smith, who has sailed hundreds of miles in the ocean in a DIY recreation of a pre-Columbian sailing vessel and spent weeks alone on the arctic tundra, the danger inherent in traveling to altitude in a homemade spacesuit is “part of the attraction.”
“It’s a very rewarding thing to know your every action could have serious consequences for your life,” Smith told me. “I’m not reckless and I realize that if you keep throwing the dice eventually something is going to happen that you can’t anticipate. You can take steps to mitigate risk, but ultimately there will always be some risk.”
Unlike Dolgov and other pressure suit pioneers, however, Smith was never in the military, he lacks a formal background is engineering life support systems, and hasn’t received any funding from NASA or private aerospace companies.
In fact, he’s a 51-year old assistant professor of anthropology at Portland State University and he designed and built most of his DIY spacesuit from his home studio. Altogether Smith told me he’s spent less than $30,000 developing the suit — a small fraction of the millions spent by NASA on its own spacesuits — this still represents the vast majority of the part-time professor’s life savings.
Smith is, at first blush, an unlikely space explorer, but he considers his foray into space exploration to be a natural extension of his academic work as an anthropologist and archaeologist. But instead of studying the development of human societies in the past and present (a subdiscipline known as cultural anthropology), he’s actively shaping the future of human civilization.
“I think what’s radically missing from anthropology is any thought for humanity’s future.”
“I think what’s radically missing from anthropology is any thought for humanity’s future,” Smith said. “A lot of my work in anthropology is the study of the evolution of the adaptation of the body. After a pretty standard career in archeology and anthropology, I thought I could take on a sort of fringe idea: The physical interaction of the human body with space.”
In the beginning, Smith didn’t tell anybody about his plan to make a DIY spacesuit because “it sounded so crazy.” Yet by 2009, after a year of research and playing around with designs, Smith had a working prototype and was posting regular updates on his progress on a personal blog. After a few years of chipping away at the design, a freelance journalist discovered his blog in 2012 and contacted Smith about writing up the project in Wired.
“That gave me some exposure, and I didn’t look so crazy,” Smith told me. “The suit looked a little crazy visually, but not too crazy. But the big exposure came with the connection to Copenhagen Suborbitals.”
In early 2013, Smith was contacted by Kristian von Bengston, a Danish architect and one of the co-founders of Copenhagen Suborbitals, who invited him to Denmark to demonstrate and test his pressure suit. Von Bengston, along with the Danish entrepreneur Peter Madsen, had founded Copenhagen Suborbitals in 2008 with the aim of building a crowd funded rocket that would be able to carry a person into space. The first astronaut to fly to space in a homemade rocket would need a pressure suit for inside the capsule and Smith’s pressure suit seemed to fit perfectly with the group’s DIY ethos.
Smith ended up spending ten days in Denmark with the Copenhagen Suborbitals team and tested the suit in a wind chamber and vacuum chamber. Ultimately, however, the partnership between Smith’s project and Copenhagen Suborbitals was short lived. Soon after Smith returned to Portland, von Bengston and Madsen had a falling out.
“Space doesn’t belong to the military industrial complex. It belongs to humanity.”
Von Bengston ended up leaving the group and Madsen left to form his own space exploration lab, which he ran until his recent arrest for murdering a journalist in his homemade submarine. Copenhagen Suborbitals continued to independently pursue its human-rated rocket, but design changes with the spaceflight vehicle meant a pressure suit would no longer be necessary for its occupant during flight.
Since then, Smith has been working with a small team of volunteers in Oregon to perfect his spacesuit and prepare for its first flight above the Armstrong Limit. What was once a weekend hobby has turned into a nightly endeavor, but Smith hopes the effort will soon pay off.
HOW TO MAKE A SPACESUIT
The high stakes and low budget of Smith’s pressure suit makes its prospects as a life support system as impressive as they are unnerving. For all intents and purposes, spacesuits are basically just personal spacecraft. They’re often the only thing separating an astronaut from a grisly death and even minor system failures can be catastrophic. Each suit has to fulfill the same life support functions that you’d find in a rocket or on board the International Space Station: It must shield its occupant from solar radiation and exposure to the extreme temperatures of space, maintain a pressure similar to that found on sea level on Earth, and recycle carbon dioxide, but must also be versatile enough to allow astronauts to perform their duties in microgravity.
There are two main types of spacesuits: Intravehicular activity (IVA) suits worn inside spacecraft, and those worn outside for extravehicular activities (EVA). IVA spacesuits are mostly there as a backup in case of an emergency, like the sudden loss of pressure in a spacecraft. This makes them inherently simpler since they don’t have to account for things like radiation exposure and the gloves can just be rubber gloves similar to those you might use to wash your dishes.
“I have no interest in Low Earth Orbit.”
Gloves are often regarded as one of the most complicated parts of a spacesuit because when the spacesuit is pressurized it can make the gloves incredibly cumbersome to use unless they are made from exotic materials and manufacturing techniques. Yet in an IVA suit, pressurized gloves only need to be able to handle simple tasks like pulling levers or turning knobs, which don’t require the dexterity demanded by gloves used outside of a spacecraft for more complex tasks so they can be made from relatively common materials.
Smith’s spacesuit falls somewhere between an EVA and an IVA suit. On the one hand, it will have to maintain pressure and oxygen levels to allow Smith to fly above 60,000 feet, but on the other hand it won’t have to account for other perils of space travel, such as radiation exposure — yet. Smith said his ultimate goal with the suit is to see it used on the surface of Mars.
“I just have to say it, I have no interest in Low Earth Orbit,” Smith told me. “I want to know what it is going to be like on a new planet, so I’m focusing on making a suit to explore the surface of Mars.”
In the past few months, Smith has successfully taken his latest suit — the Mark VII — out and “clamored around on rocks” in Oregon to test its durability. But before he got to this point it took years of R&D just to figure out how to how to get the suit to hold pressure.
When he first started out, Smith knew very little about spacesuit technology. He leaned heavily on NASA’s technical reports server, which hosts all of the declassified documents detailing the agency’s research over the past half century. By spending his nights poring over these reports and reading the hundreds of patents that came out of the Apollo era until his eyes were bleeding, Smith came to learn the fundamentals of spacesuit design, construction and testing. All that was left was to figure out how to adapt these insights to a shoestring budget.
When I spoke to Smith I suggested that understanding the complexity of spacesuits would likely be enough to make most people abandon the idea of building their own as hopeless, but he dismissed my doubts out of hand.
“There’s this thing I call the ‘right stuff fallacy,’” Smith told me, a reference to The Right Stuff, a book by Tom Wolfe about the Apollo astronauts. “NASA presents its technologies as these super special, holy relics that nobody can touch and you shouldn’t mess with. But when you take the system apart and break it down into its components, you start to demystify the thing and realize you can build the parts and join them together. It’s no longer a holy relic.”
At one point during the course of the suit’s development, Smith was visited at his studio by a former Boeing engineer who helped design the NASA Gemini spacesuits. After hours of going over the suit’s design, Smith said the engineer was impressed by what Pacific Spaceflight had managed to accomplish. “He said, ‘This looks exactly like what we did, but we had a clean room and lab coats’” Smith told me.
Smith’s first suits were made by modifying old scuba diving suits to fit his needs. Yet as he became more familiar with pressure suit design and his own requirements, he started to assemble everything from scratch. These days, he and the other Pacific Spaceflight volunteers cut their own fabric and pretty much make everything on their own or repurpose common household items as necessary (Smith said one of the few things the group can’t make on its own is the suit’s zippers).
Once the suit is perfected and tested at altitude, Smith will release the designs as an open source blueprint. He said he and his team of volunteers have just about “worked out the formulas” that will allow anyone to recreate the suit on their own based on their unique body measurements. Smith hopes that the final version of the suit will require less than $1,000 of materials to build.
Given how critical pressure suits are to keeping people alive in near space and beyond, one might imagine that Smith would be worried about letting anyone try to recreate his spacesuit. Most people won’t have access to the sophisticated testing facilities that Smith has used to test his suit or the time to make incremental improvements to the suit over the course of several years.
Yet this is precisely why he said he’s not worried about it. Given how much time and energy is required to make the suits and actually use them — not to mention a license to pilot a hot air balloon — Smith expects only a handful of others will likely make suits based on his design. Still, he is hopeful that those who do will make improvements of their own that will push the limits of his suit still farther.
THE FUTURE OF PACIFIC SPACEFLIGHT
Smith’s Mark VII pressure suit has already undergone a wide array of tests. Smith’s sat in vacuum chambers, submerged himself in ice cold ocean water, and flown in the open bay of a sky diving plane to 25,000 feet. So far, he said, the suit has performed phenomenally. In fact, when he tested the suit’s leak rate recently, he found that it was equivalent to the leak rate in the spacesuits worn by Apollo astronauts on the moon in 1969.
“Today spacesuits have much lower leak rates, but it doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “My opinion is if it worked for landing on the moon, it will work for this homebuilt thing. The point is we are achieving some of the standards that NASA has achieved.”
This level of achievement is impressive, but Smith and the Pacific Spaceflight volunteers have a long way to go before they reach the moon, or even the Armstrong Limit. Smith has been working toward his hot air balloon pilot license over the past few months and is currently limited to an altitude of 10,000 feet. By July, he hopes to have passed the test for higher altitudes, but even then a number of challenges remain before he can fly to the Armstrong Limit.
The main hurdle is technical. Hot air balloons work by heating the air inside the balloon. This causes the air inside the balloon to be less dense than the air outside the balloon, which creates lift. The air temperature inside hot air balloons is generally capped at around 250 F, which means hot air balloons eventually reach an altitude where the air is thin enough that the lift generated by the balloon is less than its weight. This is usually around 50,000 feet.
Smith and his volunteers are exploring a number of innovative solutions to get that extra 12,000 foot boost above the Armstrong Limit, such as carrying tanks of liquid hydrogen or liquid helium to altitude and inflating extra balloons at the hot air balloon’s apogee. Once the technical hurdles are overcome, however, there’s always the issue of funding. Pacific Spaceflight is entirely funded by Smith and he estimated a flight above the Armstrong Limit could cost over $10,000.
Despite these challenges, Smith said the struggle is worth it. He is motivated by a deep seated feeling that space belongs to everyone and is determined to make that gut feeling a reality.
“Space doesn’t belong to the military industrial complex,” Smith told me. “It belongs to humanity, it belongs to anyone who wants to go there. There’s an extreme frustration in me that there’s an entire universe out there to explore and the only way to get there is through these existing systems, these highly formalized systems that don’t have a whole lot of incentive to make it easy to get there right now. I think that’s a good enough reason to try this.”