Working Knowledge: Escape and Survival; July 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Simpson; 2 Page(s)
After the success of the first four shuttle test flights, space-bound astronauts sported skyblue coveralls and an oxygen mask that was hardly more than a glorified motorcycle helmet. Thanks to the ships' pressurized crew cabins, these Americans became the first to fly without the hot, bulky pressure suits that their predecessors wore. In an emergency, they expected to land the spacecraft at the nearest acceptable runway-they had no means of escape. For missions 5 through 24, this minimalist philosophy sufficed.
After the shocking explosion of Challenger in 1986, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration instructed its engineers to design an escape plan for future crews. They also reinstituted the use of a pressure suit, which protects the wearer from fire, immersion in cold water and sudden cabin decompression. (The suit automatically takes in or lets out air depending on outside air pressure.) So were born the blazing, sunset-orange outfits that astronauts now wear on liftoff and reentry. The suit's garishness is a survival feature, every bit as much as the associated parachutes, life raft, flare guns and other gear: the color is meant to draw the eye of searchers scanning the ocean waves for a bobbing astronaut.