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interview with designer Bill Elkins…
Bill Elkins has been called “one of the true fathers of the space suit.” Within months of the Sputnik 1 launch in October 1957, he began working at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio on “restraint couches” for astronauts. In the late 1960s, as a chief engineer at Garrett AiResearch, his team outcompeted four established space suit manufacturers to win the NASA contract to build long-endurance lunar suits that were to have flown on Apollos 18, 19, and 20. His suit never made it to the moon, however, because NASA cancelled all landings after Apollo 17 in December 1972. Since then Elkins, who is in the U.S. Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame, has founded several companies. Today, at age 80, he lives outside Sacramento, California, and continues working, having founded bioCOOL Technologies in 2004 and the consulting firm, WElkins in 2007. He spoke recently with Air & Space Associate Editor Mike Klesius.
Air & Space: How did the first astronaut restraint systems compare to jet pilot systems already in use?
Elkins: A jet pilot restraint system has a hard backpan and seat. It mainly is trying to contain the pilot in the seat, in a sitting position. In an astronaut couch you’re lying on your back. [In the late 1950s] they were planning a cast, form-fitting, backpan restraint couch for the astronauts. But in tests at high G it was causing substernal pain, where the sternum of the occupant would compress into the chest. I designed a sophisticated hammock supported by a tubular steel frame. It left your body in a more normal, natural form at high G. The Mercury project was then transferred to NASA and I lost track of that research. In the end, they went with the harder, backpan restraint couch.
A&S: You once sustained 16.5 Gs, an apparent record for pulling Gs and remaining conscious.
Elkins: We were examining a worst-case G scenario for a Mercury launch. So they put me in the 20-foot-arm centrifuge at Wright-Pat. The G profile was based on the maximum G that could be experienced during the launch. If the escape rocket was fired at maximum dynamic pressure—Mach 1 at roughly 40,000 feet—then 15.5 G would be experienced by the astronaut. So we [added] one G…and “flew” it on the centrifuge. The whole run duration was about three minutes. I began to gray out a bit at 13 G. Then I was above 15.5 G for about six seconds. I “flew” a tracking task with my right hand, and I had a button I could press with my left hand to respond to peripheral lights. I recently discussed this matter with Jim Brinkley, who was contemporary with me at Wright-Patterson. He became the head of the Biodynamics Lab and is an internationally recognized biodynamicist. He confirmed, to the best of his knowledge, that the 16.5 sustained G remains a benchmark achievement. They shut down that centrifuge for good not long after we did those runs in December 1958. We burned it out, I guess.
A&S: How did you get into designing space suits?
Elkins: Those runs are what got me into the spacesuit world, first at Litton where I developed the RX (rigid experimental) series of suits, and then at AiResearch, where, in about two years, I became chief engineer and developed the EX-1A and the AES [Advanced Extravehicular Suit] that won the competition for the extended Apollo mission suit.
Early on, a physicist at Litton was developing a vacuum chamber pressure suit, but Litton thought they were causing permanent heart damage. I had miles of EKGs from my centrifuge runs, so I had a certified healthy heart and was chosen as the test subject to verify or deny the problem. The lab they brought me to was in Beverly Hills, California, of all places. For lunch that day, at a local deli, I made the mistake of ordering a corned beef sandwich with the hottest mustard they had, and shortly before the test began, I started getting some serious heartburn. Well, they put me in a pressure chamber and took me up to 400,000 feet equivalent. The doctor asked me how I was feeling, and I said, “Fine, but I’m feeling a little heartburn.” He said, “Lay back!” and made me swallow a nitroglycerin pill. A subsequent conference of heart specialists determined there was no problem with the vacuum chamber suit.
A&S: What’s the biggest challenge in designing an effective space suit?
Elkins: Well, a big one is mobility, specifically the joints. If you look at the Apollo [suit] joints, the farther you bent them, the more effort it took and the harder it was to hold that position. Those suits were spring loaded to come back to the neutral position. So it took a constant force to keep them out of neutral, and that was very fatiguing. But when you move a constant volume joint to a new position, no further force is needed. When I left Litton and went to AiResearch, I invented the toroidal joint. Toroids maintain constant volume so long as the centerline remains constant. At AiResearch I designed the EX-1A [suit], the first prototype suit to use toroidal joints, in 1967. It was an outstanding suit.
A&S: What were the advantages of the hard suit versus the soft suit? Why two totally different kinds?
Elkins: There are some advantages of the hard suit, although I did not remain a proponent of it. The hard suit had value for being able to go to much higher pressures. The higher you go, the less likely you are to have the bends when exiting a higher-pressure space vehicle. So if you were wearing one, you could scramble to do an emergency [spacewalk] because you didn’t have to pre-breathe for four hours. It’s a very mobile little spaceship, if you will. Vic Vykukal, a NASA Ames engineer, also did pioneering work on the hard suit. Although it demonstrated excellent mobility, it was heavier because of the hard structural components, and the joints did not exhibit the long-life capability of the toroidal joint.
The soft suit came from a line of pressure suits used by the Air Force and Navy. BF Goodrich’s soft suits for the Mercury project were evolved from a Navy pressure suit. David Clark made soft suits for Gemini. Then ILC came into the Apollo program. They all came from that same soft emergency pressure suit lineage. It was a question of cultures and politics within the R&D labs. There was the West Coast technology such as Litton, and NASA’s Ames Research lab; but then the older timers from the East who knew soft suits. Ultimately, soft suits won out.
A&S: It’s often pointed out that the moon suits were so heavy. What was the single heaviest element?
Elkins: I think it was the PLSS, portable life support system [backpack]. The suit by itself would weigh about 60 pounds.
A&S: What was driving the desire for design changes in lunar suits for the extended Apollo missions?
Elkins: They had to be different from the earlier Apollo suits because the lunar rovers would carry astronauts some distance away from the lunar lander. They wanted to explore interesting geological features on the moon. NASA wanted a suit that, should the rover fail, had the mobility for the astronaut to quickly traverse back to the lunar module.
Apollo 16 and 17 used the ILC A7L suit that was not much of an improvement over the previous Apollo suit. In the competition for the extended Apollo missions, the AES was the first truly high mobility suit. It had about 95 percent of nude mobility range. It had significantly greater lifecycle capability. I don’t remember, but I believe the [target length for a lunar stay] was about eight days.
A&S: It’s interesting to see that so much of Constellation, such as the shape of the crew capsule, the composition of the heat shield, the launch abort system, etc., is almost identical in their general design to what was used on Apollo. It appears we figured a lot out the first time around. Will the same be true of the suits?
Elkins: Well I’m hoping to influence that. I hope to work with Oceaneering International [a NASA contractor for the Constellation lunar suits]. I have a concept for an EVA [extravehicular activity] suit with some pneumatic restraints. I think elements might apply to Constellation. It’s already applied to a host of applications in the medical field in liquid cooling and pressurization for MS and epilepsy and head trauma patients.
A&S: How will the new suits handle the damaging lunar dust?
Elkins: Good question. I have some concepts. I’m in the beginning stages of some ideas on electrostatic solutions to dust. One of the suits I studied for Lockheed was for doing polar [Earth] orbits, in which you’re introduced to more radiation than with east-west orbits. I came up with the idea of using high density tungsten fabric to increase radiation protection. Tungsten is highly conductive electrically, but still flexible. That high conductivity woven fabric with an electrostatic charge might repel lunar dust.
A&S: What do you think of the proposed suit that would attach its back entry to the outside of a moon base? After a moonwalk, the astronaut exits the suit to enter the base.
Elkins: I’m not a great proponent of the rear entry arrangement. It’s heavy, and uses valuable real estate that interferes with full mobility. My philosophy is to allow the human to operate as the magnificent machine it is. Back door entry does not easily allow for a two-axis waist joint, and that’s especially risky in unprepared terrain. Almost any maneuver you do, you’re unconsciously using your waist. I doubt that you can make the back door entry suit with the waist joint. Furthermore, there would be maintenance issues. Eventually you’ll need to replace components. So you’ll need access to the suits. For me, the human body is an engineering marvel that took several million years to develop. I want the pressure envelope over that body to exhibit the same mobility. That would minimize learning time in using the suit, and allow rapid solutions to problems during [spacewalks].
A&S: The old Apollo suits were used for one mission and retired. How will the new suit be built to handle repeated use?
Elkins: It will have to have a three-million-cycle life, minimum. One bend in one direction, and returning to neutral, that’s one cycle. The Apollo suit joints, and the latest shuttle suit joints, are not much good above 60,000 cycles.
A&S: What drives you to continue your work?
Elkins: I’m 80, and I’m still pretty much working around the clock. If I can contribute to mankind, space, medicine, and other-life hazardous protective applications, it keeps me young.
photos courtesy Bill Elkins
the making of a time machine…
High on a rocky ridge in the desert, nestled among the brush, is the topmost part of a clock that has been ticking for thousands of years. It looks out over the ruins of a spaceport, built by a rich man whose name was forgotten long ago. Most of the clock is deep inside the mountain, below the ridgeline. To get there, you hike for days through the heat; the only sounds are the buzzing of flies and the whisper of the occasional breeze. You climb up through the brush, then pass through a hidden door into the darkness and silence of the clock chamber. Far above your head, in the darkness, a massive pendulum swings slowly back and forth, making the clock tick once every 10 seconds. No one knows who built it, or why. They built it well, and even now it keeps perfect time. All we know of these strange people is that they were obsessed with the future. Why else would they build something that had no purpose except to mark time for thousands of years?
The rich man is Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and he has indeed started construction on a clock that he hopes will run for 10,000 years. For Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, the clock is not just the ultimate prestige timepiece. It’s a symbol of the power of long-term thinking. His hope is that building it will change the way hmanity thinks about time, encouraging our distant descendants to take a longer view than we have. For starters, Bezos himself is taking a far, far longer view than most Fortune 500 CEOs. “Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through.”
To help achieve his mission of fostering long-term thinking, Bezos last week launched a website to publicize his clock. People who want to visit the clock once it’s ready can put their names on a waiting list on the site — although they’ll have to be prepared to wait, as the clock won’t be complete for years.
It’s a monumental undertaking that Bezos and the crew of people designing and building the clock repeatedly compare to the Egyptian pyramids. And as with the pharaohs, it takes a certain amount of ego — even hubris — to consider building such a monument. But it’s also an unparalleled engineering problem, challenging its makers to think about how to keep a machine intact, operational and accurate over a time span longer than most human-made objects have even existed.
Consider this: 10,000 years ago, our ancestors had barely begun making the transition from hunting and gathering to simple agriculture, and had just figured out how to cultivate gourds to use as bottles. What if those people had built a machine, set it in motion, and it was still running today? Would we understand how to use it? What would it tell us about them? And would it change the way we think about our own future?
The idea for the clock has been around since Danny Hillis first proposed it in WIRED magazine in 1995. Since then, Hillis and others have built prototypes and created a nonprofit, the Long Now Foundation, to work on the clock and promote long-term thinking. But nobody actually started building a full-scale 10,000-year clock until Bezos put up a small portion — $42 million, he says — of his fortune.
Last year, contractors started machining components, such as a trio of 8-foot stainless steel gears and the Geneva wheels that will ring the chimes. Meanwhile, computers at Jet Propulsion Laboratories have spent months calculating the sun’s position in the sky at noon every day for the next 10,000 years, data that the clock will use to correct itself. This year, excavation began on the Texas desert site where the clock will be installed deep underground. And just last month, the Smithsonian agreed to let the Long Now Foundation install a 10,000-year clock in one of its Washington museums, once they can find someone to fund it. It seems that the time for millennium clocks has arrived.
Making a clock that will run for 10 millennia is no small undertaking. In Texas, the builders have started drilling a horizontal access tunnel into the base of the ridge where the clock will live. They’ll drill a pilot hole, 500 feet straight down from the top of the ridge, until it meets the access tunnel. Then they’ll bring a 12-foot-7-inch bit into the bottom and drill it back up, carving out a tall vertical shaft as it goes. Afterwards, they’ll install a movable platform holding a 2.5-ton robot arm with a stonecutting saw mounted on the end. It will start carving a spiral staircase into the vertical shaft, from the top down, one step at a time. The clock, with massive metal gears, a huge stone weight, and a precise, titanium escapement inside a protective quartz box, will go deep into the shaft. A few years from now, the makers will set it in motion.
Some day, thousands of years in the future, when Bezos and Amazon and even the United States are nothing more than memories, or less even than that, people may discover this clock, still ticking, and scratch their heads. Bezos says, “In the year 4000, you’ll go see this clock and you’ll wonder, ‘Why on Earth did they build this?’” The answer, he hopes, will lead you to think more profoundly about the distant future and your effects on it.
1644: The Gottorp Globe the world’s first modern planetarium, is completed in Germany. The hollow sphere, ten feet in diameter, is turned by water power; it has a map of the constellations on the interior and a map of the world on the outside. In 1714, it is given as a gift to Peter the Great but is destroyed by fire in 1747. The reconstructed globe, stolen by the Germans in World War II and recovered by US troops, now resides at the St. Petersburg Kunstkammer.
1850: Baron Haussmann and engineer Eugène Belgrand design the modern Paris sewer system.The sewers are regularly cleaned using large wooden spheres just smaller than the system’s tubular tunnels. The buildup of water pressure behind the balls forces them through the tunnel network until they emerge somewhere downstream pushing a mass of filthy sludge.
1922: Meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson, creator of the first dynamic model for weather prediction, proposes the creation of a “forecast factory” that would employ some 64,000 human computers sitting in tiers around the circumference of a giant globe. Each calculator would be responsible for solving differential equations related to the weather in his quadrant of the earth. From a pedestal in the center of the factory, a conductor would orchestrate this symphony of equations by shining a beam of light on areas of the globe where calculation was moving too fast or falling behind.
1930s: Workers from the United Fruit Company, clearing land in the Diquis Valley of Costa Rica, begin unearthing large numbers of almost perfectly round stone spheres. The largest of these apparently man-made balls is over six feet in diameter and weighs over sixteen tons. No one is sure exactly when or how they were made, or by whom, or for what reason, but according to University of Kansas archaeologist John Hoopes, “the balls were most likely made by reducing round boulders to a spherical shape through a combination of controlled fracture, pecking, and grinding.” Today, virtually all of the spheres have been taken from their original locations. Many are now prized lawn ornaments across Costa Rica.
1934: William Beebe and Otis Barton descend more than half a mile beneath the surface of the ocean in the Bathysphere, a 4.75-foot steel ball fitted with three-inch—thick quartz windows. Their depth record stands for fourteen years.
1939: The centerpiece of the New York World’s Fair is a 700-foot triangular spire called the Trylon and the 180-foot tall Perisphere, a giant ball housing a model of a Utopian garden city of the future called “Democracity.” It is described in the official guide book as a “symbol of a perfectly integrated, futuristic metropolis pulsating with life and rhythm and music.”
1960: NASA launches Echo 1, America’s first communications satellite. The 100-foot mylar “satalloon” is coated in shiny, radio-reflective aluminum that allows it to passively bounce radio and television signals across the Atlantic.
1984: After a dispute with the Austrian government over the construction of his spherical house, Austrian artist Edwin Lipburger declares his property an independent nation and renames it the Republic of Kugelmugel. Lipburger is sentenced to jail for his refusal to pay taxes and insistence on printing his own stamps. However, a pardon from the Austrian president saves him from serving time.
1999: The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory begins operation more than a mile underground in an Ontario mine. The forty-foot sphere is filled with 1,000 tons of heavy water. Its purpose is to detect solar neutrinos.