A Russian space suit made an unusual centerpiece to a talk last week for Introduction to Aerospace Engineering, a freshman course taught by Professor Dava J. Newman.
The Russian suit is the only one of its kind in the United States. It is currently being leased by Hamilton Standard, the prime contractor for the space suit used in the US shuttle program. Hamilton Standard has been examining the suit and comparing it to its US counterpart for about a year.
Professor Newman of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics arranged to have Steve Dionne of Hamilton Standard bring the suit to MIT. Together the two compared the US and Russian approaches to space-suit design.
In general, Professor Newman noted that "over the years American suits have really changed dramatically compared to the Russian suits."
Dr. Dionne went on to cite some specific differences between the suits. For example, the Russian suit is essentially provided in only one size, although the arm and leg lengths can be adjusted. "The only thing provided in different sizes is the gloves," Dr. Dionne said. In contrast, the US suit is of a modular construction: "we provide all of the components in different sizes, so we can mix and match them in different combinations for each astronaut." (The upper torso, for example, comes in four different sizes.)
Dr. Dionne also noted that the Russian suit has a four-year operational life, as compared to about eight years for the US suit (the hard components last about 15 years).
Another design difference between the two suits, torso rotation, is a reflection of different ways of navigating during space walks. The Russian suit has very limited torso rotation, while the US suit is fairly flexible in this respect. This is because American astronauts primarily use foot restraints during space walks, while the Russians use a tether system. Dr. Dionne noted, however, that the Russians are now redesigning their suit to allow the ankles to rotate.
The current Russian suit is known as the Orlan-DMA. Dr. Dionne noted that all of the Russians' pressurized suits are named after birds. Orlan is Russian for eagle.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 1995.