DIY Space Suits

Roman: This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Cameron: Supersaturation solenoid switch on.

Man 1: Confirmed

Cameron: Connect coolant hose. Coolant pump on. Confirmed flow.

Man 1: We’re going to wait and confirm after suit up.

Julie: These guys are about to test a space suit.

Roman: But this is not a recording of a NASA lab

Julie: This is Cameron Smith’s ground floor studio apartment in Portland, Oregon.

Roman: That’s Julie Sabatier. Also from Portland, Oregon. She’s the creator of the public radio program and podcast called Destination DIY. Do we have to say what DIY stands for?

Julie: Sure. It stands for Do It Yourself

Roman: You might think building your own space suit at home is a little extreme on the DIY spectrum. And if you do, I totally agree with you.

Judy: It is pretty crazy. We’ve talked about a lot of kinds of do it yourself projects on Destination DIY. We have a very broad definition of do it yourself.

Roman: For being your own lawyer to DIY funerals. Way beyond the crafts and home improvement projects that might first spring to mind when you hear the words do it yourself.

Julie: And this is definitely up there with perhaps the most daunting of DIY projects that you could imagine.

Roman: Sure, there are commercial companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR creating their own space gear. And they are DIY in the sense that they aren’t NASA.

Julie: But Cameron Smith is handcrafting his spacesuit.

Cameron: Under the suit, I wear a pair of long johns. I sewed some socks onto them so they don’t slip up on my legs when I push my legs into the pressure suit. And I sewed– I think I have about 25 feet now of plastic hose that sewn into the suit and ice water circulates through there and it keeps me cool. And that’s absolutely critical, it gets so hot in the suit that you would pass out. I once had a temperature in there–I think that’s ah 117 degrees but it’s, it’s really crude. You should see it. You know, I don’t have a sewing machine, so I just sit on my bed and I watch a movie or something and just do it by hand.

Julie: He’s not kidding. The sewing looks like something out of Frankenstein. The second layer of the suit is called the pressure bladder. It’s basically forming a bubble around Cameron’s body to hold the air in.

Cameron: The third layer goes over that and that’s the pressure restraint layer. And that’s made of panels of non-elastic mesh. It looks like a, like a cargo bag sort of. So those are sewed over the pressure bladder because if you were to blow up just the pressure bladder, the suit that contains the gas, it blows up into sort of like the Michelin man. And you could survive but you couldn’t do anything. You couldn’t bend your arms. You would be in kind of spread eagle position just sort of floating there, you couldn’t do anything.

Julie: Total cost of Cameron Smith’s space suit, 2,000 bucks.

Roman: Around 100th of 1% of the cost of the latest NASA space suit.

Cameron: This technology over the last forty odd years has become much cheaper, much more available and better. You can essentially build a do it yourself space program today. And now luckily, I’m part of that.

Julie: Cameron is not an astronaut. He’s not even an engineer. He’s actually an archeologist. He’s on faculty in the Anthropology department at Portland State University. But Cameron is an explorer by nature. He’s been diving in Puget Sound, survived Arctic winters in Iceland and Alaska, and summit-ted Oregon’s mount hood more times than he can count. The space suit is his latest and most ambitious project.

Cameron. Showing that it’s possible to do it cheaply is I guess my part of this larger movement of opening space up to many rather few.

Julie: The space suit has been three years in the making. You only have to look around at Cameron’s tiny apartment to see how committed he is to this project. Instead of hanging art on the wall. Cameron has each of the suits three layers hanging side by side next to his bed which is surrounded by bookshelves crammed full of NASA patents and other research materials. His living room serves as the staging area for the gas canisters and the gondola where he tests the suit. Eventually, he wants to connect that gondola and all of the life support gear to a balloon that will take him 50,000 feet in the air.

Roman: He is also sewing the balloon himself.

Julie: At 50,000 feet above the surface of the earth. Cameron will experience space-like conditions. And that means, he’ll need his suit to protect him from extreme temperatures and decompression sickness.

Cameron: And that’s what you get from going from sea level to high altitude. Less pressure and you decompress your body starts to swell up. Nitrogen bubbles in your tissues start to come out of solution and they give you bends. It’s just what divers get. Decompression sickness.

Julie: A suit with even three pounds of pressure per square inch can keep a person healthy at high altitude conditions.

Roman: And that’s just about what Cameron suit holds on a good day.

Julie: He’s worked hard to try to close up all the leaks but it’s an ongoing process

Roman: And Cameron knows what you think of this.

Cameron: I really didn’t want people to think I was crazy. And I was– I was really worried about that because you know when you say “Oh, a balloon in an open gondola underneath it.” The first thing people think about is, they say “hey do you remember that guy who went up in a balloon in a lawn chair, lawn chair Larry, crazy dude.” That’s exactly what people think.

Julie: But not everyone. Cameron has attracted a small team of student volunteers who are committed to making the technology of space travel more accessible. In the spring of 2013, they started doing weekly tests.

Cameron: Suit box, BG levers 1,2 and 3 open.

Man 1: BG levers 1,2 and 3 are open.

Julie: They checked off items on an exhaustive list. Making sure the breathing gas, pressure gas and suit coolant are all in place

Roman: The most expensive part of the suit and the only part of the suit that Cameron didn’t build himself is the Soviet Air Force helmet he bought on eBay.

Cameron: The helmet is an exception to my general rule of, you know, I wanna build it from things that you can easily access or basically not use things from the production system, typically military production systems that have already sorted out all the problems. I didn’t wanna do that. I wanna solve the problems myself.

Judy: Why? I mean why reinvent the wheel? These problems have been presumably solved by other people. Obviously. Cause people had been in the space before.

Cameron: That’s a great question. Why reinvent the wheel? Why we do it? It’s an incredible thrill for me personally to beat my head against a problem and I can’t figure it out. And then one day, I’m walking home or I’m on the streetcar and it’s a eureka moment. And it’s so thrilling. “Ahhh! I got it!” And I have to almost run home and build the thing and see if it works. So for me, you know, it’s an intellectual adventure. It’s, “Oh my gosh, can I figure out the math? Can I mix the gases properly? Can I make this thing hold pressure? Can my mind, can I with my mind solve these problems?” So it’s a lot of fun.

Julie: When Cameron puts the suit on, he starts out on the floor. He has to wriggle and shimmy his way under the suit’s outer layers.

Cameron: So right now. I’ll just put my leg up like that and bend and start getting my foot down in there. Then I block the inhale valve on the line in. You can inhale but you can’t exhale. It’s a minor problem. We will fix it.

Julie: That doesn’t sound like a minor problem.

Cameron: What I mean is that the mechanism is so simple that I believe it can be fixed. We just haven’t got the solution yet.

Roman: It turns that Cameron isn’t the only one on the metaphorical floor wriggling into his homemade space suit.

Judy: I could actually start a whole new radio show just about the DIYers who are trying to get themselves into space. There’s this Danish company called Copenhagen Suborbitals and they’re building rockets and space capsules in an abandoned shipyard in Denmark.

Man 2: [foreign words]

Roman: These guys have the goal of suborbital flight in mind. Like Alan Shepard, they’ll just go up and come right back down again rather than orbiting the earth like John Glen.

Julie: Copenhagen Suborbitals and Cameron Smith, the space suit guy. They’ve actually been working together. Kristian von Bengston is the co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals and he’s talking to Cameron about building suits for them to use once they’ll ready to replace their crash test dummy with the live human being. Kristian’s approach to building his space capsule is right in line with what Cameron is doing with the suit

Kristian: A lot of the stuff we’re buying is you know, the Danish equivalent to Home Depot.

Roman: Take for example the heat shields

Julie: NASA has used some pretty fancy materials like reinforced carbon and high purity silica fiber to create heat shields for the shuttle and other vehicles.

Kristian: And for the space capsule. We have a heat shield made up of cork which is just bought at a local carpet shop.

Julie: Did you say cork? like CORK?

Kristian: Exactly. And a lot of people find it funny that we used cork as a heat shield. And it might bit funny but it’s the perfect solution for it.

Roman: What would be the wood-based equivalent to steampunk?

Julie: Tree punk, bark punk, wood punk, arbor punk.

Roman: Arbor punk. I like that one. Anyway, both of these examples may on the surface seem as removed as possible from the sleek, polished and perfectly engineered products of NASA. I mean, their heat shields are made of cork. But they all possess the same problem-solving genius needed to allow humans to exist in an environment where no human has any business being. One of my favorite scenes in any movie is Apollo 13. From the ground based crew realizes that they have to adapt E-squared carbon dioxide air filters from one part of the ship to fit into the round carbon dioxide scrubber in another part of the ship or all the astronauts will asphyxiate and die.

Male 1: How about the scrubbers on the command module.

Male 2: They take square cartilages.

Male 3: The ones on the lim are round.

Male 1: Tell me this isn’t a government operation.

Male 2: This isn’t contingency we’re remotely looked at–

Male 4: Those CO2 levels are gonna be getting toxic.

Male 1: Well, I suggest you gentlemen, invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole. Rapidly.

Roman: That’s the sound of the NASA engineers throwing all the available materials on the space ship on a table.

Male 5: Listen up. We gotta find a way to make this… fit into the hole for this… using nothing but that. Let’s get it organized.

Male 6: Okay, okay. Let’s build a filter.

Male 5: Better get some coffee going too.

Roman: So when I think of Cameron, I think less Lawn Chair Larry and more 60’s engineers supporting the horn rims and the short sleeve shirt with a tie. He’s scattering the parts across the table and attacking the problem.

Cameron: When I have to design something very specific and I have to look to how other people have done it if I can’t figure it myself. Almost always it’s the Russian space suits that I’m modeling after. They never had as much money and so they had to do things in a more inventive way.

Roman: Whether you’re in a garage or at a big company or on a gondola at 50,000 feet. The design process is the same. Research. Express the prototype, test and cycle.

Julie: But with Cameron’s project, the stakes are significantly higher.

Cameron: It would be so embarrassing to get killed in it, you know, so I’m going to make it work.

Julie: Notice that he said embarrassing in that sense. Not terrifying.

Roman: Which to me, sounds just like an astronaut.

[background music]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Julie Sabatier, creator of the public radio program and podcast Destination DIY. This show is currently fundraising on Indiegogo to produce more stories that makers, builders and offbeat creators. If you wanna pitched in like I did. You can do a search on Indiegogo for Destination DIY or go to One of their rewards packages includes a really great set of scenes on how to make radio that I think many of you will enjoy. The program is Destination DIY. Search for it on Indiegogo.

99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

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