Pressure Suit Memories

While looking through the exhibits at the Blackbird Society’s Biennial reunion, held this year at the Nugget in Reno, I ran across some familiar-looking artifacts. The gold suit there was the same type used for the first four Space Shuttle flights, and was the basis for development of the Launch Escape Suits used in the Shuttle following the loss of the Challenger, eventually morphing into the ACES suit at the end of the program. I got to spend a fair amount of time in these things as a test subject and evaluator over the years, and it was always kind of fun to spend a day zippered into the cocoon of a suit – it felt a little peaceful with the helmet on, isolated from the world (until they plugged you into the Comm system).

The suits on display were part of the private collection of pressure suit historian Dennis Gilliam. He had several suits on display, all of which he has put together from bits and pieces he has collected over the years. The pressure bladder of the white suit, for instance, was found in a trunk at Colonel Bubbies – a fantastic military surplus store in Galveston, Texas. I used to wander through Bubbies looking for interesting things to collect – but never found anything that good!

In addition to these full-pressure suits, he had a few partial pressure suits from the early U-2 days on display. Boy – I can’t really imagine enjoying spending 12 hours in one of those things – tight fitting, they must have left a few sore spots by the end of a long mission. A little trivia from Gilliam – for missions involving overflights of hostile foreign powers, all traces of identification were removed from the suits – including grinding off the word “Talon” from the zipper pulls used all over the garment. I’m sure that seemed like a good idea to someone at the time.

It does make me wonder what happened to the entire suit collection that NASA had at the end of the Shuttle program. Seeing as how I am sure they are developing more modern suits for the follow-on projects, I am guessing that they have gone on to museums – but maybe it would be worth keeping an eye out if you find yourself in Galveston, wandering through the musty aisles of The Colonel’s….

Ironflight in the space shuttle launch escape suit.