The bulky orange pressure suits are far less comfortable than the coveralls shuttle crews once wore - and they take forever to put on. But they could be lifesavers for Discovery's astronauts.
The 75-pound suits, never before worn into space, are to be worn only during takeoff and landing and come packed with parachutes, lifeboats and radios. They are part of a new escape system, including a telescoping pole and an escape hatch, that was devised in the aftermath of Challenger, although it would not have helped in the disaster that killed seven astronauts."It's not a very comfortable thing to walk around in, but it's got a lot of capabilities," said Roly Rice, project engineer for the escape system at the Space Center.
It's so uncomfortable, in fact, that NASA has cut the "launch window" - the span in which liftoff could occur - from three to 21/2 hours to reduce the time the five crew members must spend on their backs inside the orbiter while dressed in the garments.
The astronauts had to wake up about 30 minutes earlier than previously on launch day because it takes extra time to put the suits on.
During the first four shuttle flights, astronauts wore less-sophisticated pressure suits that were to be used in combination with ejection seats in case of a launch emergency. But after the shuttle was deemed "operational," the seats were removed and the suits replaced with simple coveralls.
The Rogers Commission, which investigated the 1986 Challenger explosion, urged the space agency to return to some type of escape system. NASA, after considering several possibilities, picked the escape hatch and pole.
The most likely use for the escape system would be if the main engines failed during launch and prevented the shuttle from reaching orbit. If the crew were unable to return to the Kennedy Space Center runway or make an emergency landing overseas, it would until now have been faced with ditching the shuttle in the ocean - a prospect NASA officials consider unsurvivable.
The new system provides another option, letting the astronauts bail out before the shuttle hits the ocean.
In such a scenario, commander Richard H. Hauck would ditch the external fuel tank and try to steer into a controlled, gliding and subsonic flight.
At 30,000 feet, astronaut George Nelson would blow an explosive hatch that would deploy the new curved telescoping pole. The cabin would have been vented at 40,000 feet so the pressure inside would be equal to the outside to avoid an explosive decompression when the hatch is blown.
The pole would jut out from the side of the orbiter, and each astronaut would attach a ring to it and bail out, beginning at about 25,000 feet.
"They basically just dive out head first down the pole," Rice said.
He said the crew should be able to bail out in about two minutes.
Parachutes attached to their suits would be triggered automatically, although they could also be opened manually. The suits have water wings, and a lifeboat stored in the parachute pack would open before the astronaut lands in the ocean.
Each suit includes a radio, a flare kit and motion sickness pills, Rice said.
"They'll (the astronauts) be about a mile apart each in the ocean depending on when they exit the shuttle," Rice said.
To help in case the astronauts do have to leap into the Atlantic, 18 Air Force parachute rescuers were dispatched last week from Florida to Gambia and Morocco on Africa's northwest coast.
"We'll be there to catch them if they fall," said Tech. Sgt. John Smith before leaving for Benguerir, Morocco, where he heads the group of jumpers deployed there.
Each of the two nine-member jumper groups is assigned to a C-130 Hercules cargo plane that would home in on signals from emergency transmitters the astronauts carry with them, explained the squadron's commander, Col. Edward Behling.
The jumpers, along with motorized rubber boats and medical supplies, would parachute from 3,000 feet into the water near where the astronauts were located. They would pick up the astronauts and wait until they could be rescued by a ship or helicopter.
NASA officials first wanted the suits to be blue but decided to make them orange after realizing they would be more visible in the ocean.
The escape system could be used on liftoff only after the solid rocket boosters finish firing and peel off from the orbiter two minutes into flight. The Challenger explosion occurred 73 seconds after takeoff, when the device would have been no help.
The system also could be used on landing, if the astronauts find they are coming down short of the runway at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and need to bail out.