Sunday, 15 March 2015

Space Balls

All the recent hubbub around the 2013 high concept Clooney/Bullock bucks-fest Gravity, which I have still failed to manage to see, got me to wondering what plans are actually in place in the event of some extra-planetary space vehicular mishap.

On a program as extensive and expensive as NASA's shuttle flights, surely some backup systems would have existed in the event of disaster? And just sometimes when you go digging round on a whim, you find the truth trumps the fiction in its seeming fictiveness.

Allow me, dear readers to acquaint you with the Personal Rescue Sphere or Enclosure, depending on your source, much more colorfully known as the ‘Space Ball’ in NASA shortspeak. Prior to the Challenger disaster, space shuttle crews did not wear protective space suits, so would have been unable to survive had they needed to leave the shuttle with relatively short notice.

The solution to this problem was the provision for each crew member of their own Personal Rescue Sphere, a 34-inch diameter fabric garment into which they can be zipped. Each PRS has its own supply of oxygen, a window, and a small telephone. The sphere is inflated with oxygen, and can be carried through space to a rescue vehicle. Which presumably your telephone has on speed dial.

As well as allowing for an emergency decompression, the ‘Space Ball’ might also be used if the cabin air became contaminated, allowing a suited crewmember to vent the entire atmosphere and replace it.

Some sites describe the sphere as a "high tech beach ball", though the tech element isn't really much in evidence. Astronauts would be forced to remain in a foetal position while in the PRS, don an oxygen mask, and cradle a carbon dioxide scrubber/oxygen supply box in their arms which can supply one hour's worth of oxygen. The ball would be connected by an umbilical cable to the shuttle, which would supply air until the airlock depressurised.

The window was apparently essential to avoid total sensory deprivation. There are some possibly apocryphal stories circulating that spending 15 minutes shut inside a space ball was a formal part of NASA's astronaut screening process at one time. Once their fifteen minutes had elapsed, the candidate was asked how long they thought they had been shut inside. If the candidate was not totally hysterical and guessed anything under an hour, they passed the assessment.

The balls themselves are intended to be escorted by a suited astronaut through space to any rescue vehicle. You get the sense that this is the stage of the operation where the whole thing never moved much beyond the theoretical. While NASA never made any secret of this regimen, they do appear to have been silent on the subject since the Challenger disaster, and the implication is the whole idea was quietly shelved.