What It Was Like Being Back in a Spacesuit After Two Years
To say that the COVID pandemic has been disruptive to my spaceflight training would be an understatement. Throughout all of 2020 and most of 2021, the training has been entirely virtual and has primarily been academic in nature. Some of the topics of study have, for instance, included space medicine and orbital mechanics.
As important as the academic portion of the training might be, however, it just isn't the sort of thing that makes for good stories. I can't even imagine trying to write a Posey's Moonshot column discussing the joys of reading textbooks and writing research papers.
Thankfully, the hands-on portion of the training resumed last month after nearly two years of being online only. Needless to say, I was super excited to be getting back to doing hands-on training. Most of the hands-on training exercises, though challenging, are every bit as much fun as you would imagine. Besides just being fun, though, the training exercises are deeply satisfying That satisfaction comes from successfully working through something really difficult, and also from the realization that each successfully completed training exercise is one step closer to eventually flying a mission in space.
As much as I was looking forward to getting back in the saddle, so to speak, I was also feeling a small amount of apprehension. After all, two years had passed since my last hands-on training exercise. I couldn't help but wonder if I had maintained the necessary level of physical fitness and if, at 48 years old, I would still be able to keep up with the younger commercial astronaut candidates. I also wondered how well I would remember all of the various procedures. Realistically, I wasn't actually expecting to have any problems, but I couldn't help but wonder if time away had taken its toll.
In retrospect, most of my concerns were unfounded. Once onsite, I quickly realized that I had indeed kept my level of physical fitness where it needed to be and that my age had not slowed me down. I had also spent some time before arriving onsite reviewing spacesuit operations and some of the other procedures I knew I would be using.
The funny thing is that I expected wearing a spacesuit to be completely familiar. Prior to the world shutting down in 2020, I had worn a spacesuit countless times and I assumed that because I had used the suit so often, putting it back on after two years would be no different than when I was using it on a regular basis.
In some ways the suit was indeed completely familiar. In other ways, however, I almost felt like I did when I put on the suit for the very first time.
I remembered the suit's technical aspects and all the procedural stuff without any problem. One thing that really surprised me, though, is that I had forgotten how to open the visor -- well, sort of.
Before you can open the visor on the spacesuit, you have to depressurize the suit by turning a regulator valve. There is nothing stopping you from opening the visor with the suit pressurized, but it's not the sort of thing that you want to be doing. Opening the visor with the suit pressurized can damage the suit and can also potentially damage your inner ear. Once the suit has been depressurized, there are two pull tabs on the suit's neck ring. Pulling these tabs releases the latches, opening the visor.
I remembered the procedure for depressurizing the suit and using the pull tabs to open the visor, but forgot one minor nuance: You can't pull the tabs straight out. They have to be pulled slightly toward the side or else the visor won't release. Even though I had previously opened the visor countless times, I had forgotten that one little detail and couldn't get my visor open. It was a little bit embarrassing to have to ask for help with something so fundamental, but at least I wasn't the only one having a bit of trouble with some of the basics. We were all pretty rusty after going for so long without doing any of the hands-on exercises.
There were also some other things I had forgotten about the spacesuit. My feet are way too big for it, and I had forgotten just how aggressively I have to pull on the legs in order to get my feet into the boots. I had also forgotten little things, like what the suit's rubber smells like or how loud of a hissing sound the air makes coming into the helmet.
I had also forgotten what it is like to run out of air. That's not normally an issue with a spacesuit, but some of the training involved emergency operations that require you to use a small air bottle strapped to your leg rather than breathing off of the normal air supply. Because the bottle is so small, it doesn't last long.
There is no point at which you wonder if the air is still flowing because you can hear it. When the air runs out, the suit suddenly becomes very quiet. A few seconds later, the visor begins to steam up. Visor fogging isn't normally an issue because a spray bar constantly blows air onto the inside of the visor. It works similarly to a car's window defroster.
At that point, there is still enough air inside of the suit to breathe. The air inside the suit gets hotter and more humid, but you can still breathe without any problem. As you begin to deplete the air in the suit, however, breathing becomes more difficult. You can still inhale and exhale without issue, but there is a very noticeable feeling that you aren't getting enough air. I have never pushed it beyond that point, and have always opened the visor before I even come close to the point of passing out from a lack of oxygen.
Despite feeling a bit like a fish out of water, it felt unbelievably good to be back in a spacesuit after so much time. Hopefully, this will be the start of a return to normalcy and training operations will begin to happen on a regular basis. There are some zero-gravity flights scheduled for the near future and I'm sure that there will be other training activities after that.
Brien Posey is a 21-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.