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First astronauts’ spacesuits were a marvel in their day

This news story was published on February 19, 2012.
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By Mark J. Price, Akron Beacon Journal –

AKRON, Ohio — If it hadn’t been for Akron ingenuity, astronaut John Glenn might have had to circle the planet in his skivvies.

The B.F. Goodrich Co. designed and built the silver spacesuit that Glenn wore on Feb. 20, 1962, as the first American to orbit the Earth. Monday is the 50th anniversary of the Ohioan’s historic flight aboard the Mercury space capsule Friendship 7. He became a national hero when he made three trips around the world, traveling 83,450 miles in four hours and 55 minutes.

Goodrich made every spacesuit worn by Project Mercury’s seven original astronauts. The others were Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Donald “Deke “Slayton.

In 1959, NASA agreed to buy 20 suits from Goodrich for $75,000, about $3,750 each. Today, that would be $583,249, or $29,000 apiece.

Glenn and Schirra were the first to be fitted, arriving in Akron in October 1959. Dressed in civilian clothes, they dined with 40 workers in Goodrich’s cafeteria and left that same day.

“For a pair whose pictures and life stories have been spread across the pages of newspapers and national magazines for months, they attracted little attention,” the Beacon Journal reported.

The other five astronauts soon followed..

Goodrich traced the history of its space garb to 1934 when famed pilot Wiley Post ordered a high-altitude suit. Goodrich worker Russell S. Colley designed the pressurized garment from balloon fabric. His wife, Dorothy, stitched it together on her sewing machine.

Nearly 25 years later, Goodrich named Colley the engineer of the Mercury spacesuit project. The Beacon Journal called him “the first tailor of the Space Age.”

Goodrich built a stainless-steel chamber at its research center in Brecksville to test spacesuits in a vacuum. The room mixed hydrogen, nitrogen, argon and oxygen to simulate high altitudes.

“We needed to know how fabrics and other materials would stand up under flexing, abrasion, elongation and friction in a space environment,” Frank K. Schoenfeld, vice president of research and development, explained in 1961. “We had to know how strong they were, how they reflected light, conducted heat and behaved under other conditions.”

Ultimately, Goodrich made its airtight suits with two layers of aluminized nylon coated with neoprene. Each insulated outfit had four sections — torso, helmet, gloves and boots — and required the assembly of 1,600 custom-made parts.

The spacesuits weighed 20 pounds, not counting the long underwear that astronauts wore. Oxygen was pumped in through a waist connection.

Built with molded forms, the suits didn’t stretch much, and that presented Goodrich with some unusual difficulties.

During a 1960 meeting with NASA, Colley confided: “We get the suit very carefully made — a perfect fit. And then the astronauts go on the banquet circuit and put on weight. It’s a real problem.”

He wasn’t speaking of Glenn, though. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, the Marine lieutenant colonel was an exercise fanatic, running five miles a day, performing calisthenics and working out on a trampoline. During his flight at age 40, he stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 168 pounds.

Glenn’s spacesuit and the Friendship 7 capsule are at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Today, Glenn is 90 and lives in Columbus with his wife, Annie.

“Although Colonel Glenn traveled alone in his 81,000-mile journey, the thoughts and prayers of millions were with him,” the Beacon Journal editorialized in 1962.

“Pride in achievement mixed with prayerful thanksgiving when word came that he was down and safe.

“It was a day of glory for a brave man and for the nation whose prestige and honor he carried into space.”

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