When astronauts go outside the International Space Station for a spacewalk, they wear gloves that NASA engineer Amy Ross had a hand in developing. The gloves that Ross helped design nearly ten years ago are the same gloves worn by crewmembers today.
Ross is an advanced spacesuit designer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. She is also the daughter of astronaut Jerry Ross, who has flown in space seven times and conducted nine spacewalks, setting two U.S. records.
As a NASA co-op student in the 1990s, Amy Ross worked with veteran spacesuit designer Joseph Kosmo on a new glove design, which is still in use today. Kosmo has designed suits for NASA since 1961 and participated in the development of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and shuttle spacesuits, as well as numerous advanced technology configuration spacesuits for future applications.
Kosmo and Ross looked specifically at a new glove design for extravehicular activities, or EVAs, to replace the 4000 series EVA glove, introduced in 1985.
"The space station and EVAs were really ramping up," Ross said. "We needed to help those guys and gals. We needed to do something significant. And a new glove would be best."
"[Kosmo] had done several different glove designs and had tested them and took the good bits of each one and stuck them into one glove," Ross recalled. The results were the Phase VI glove, which gave crewmembers a more comfortable fit and improved hand mobility. The Phase VI glove was the first EVA glove to be developed completely with computer-aided design.
"It was fun," Ross said of the design and flight-certification process for the new glove. "My job was to get the Phase VI glove ready for flight. I certified our prototype to a flight design."
The first pair was worn by her father on the first International Space Station assembly flight, STS-88, in December 1998.
"He was supposed to wear the 4000 series on an EVA, the Phase VI on an EVA and then pick whichever pair he liked best on the third EVA so that we'd get a comparison," the younger Ross explained. But her father didn't exactly follow that plan.
"He wore a Phase VI glove on the first EVA. He wore a Phase VI glove on the second EVA. And he wore a Phase VI glove on the third EVA," Ross said with a smile. "Apparently he liked them. After that, we went into production."
Ross' mom is also part of America's space program. Karen Ross is a food technologist with United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor. Ross said her dad jokes that she dresses him and her mom feeds him.
Ross said her parents' careers, as well as a summer tending animals, influenced her decision to pursue a career in science.
"In high school ... I liked animals a lot, and space, of course, was everywhere. So I went and worked at a friend's dad's vet clinic one summer and decided, 'Nope, I don't want to do that,'" Ross remembered.
After high school, she successfully pursued a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She got her foot in NASA's door in 1990 as a co-op student through the NASA Cooperative Education Program, which supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce. Ross joined the space agency full-time in 1996.
In the late 1990s, Ross and other NASA engineers experimented with building a better surface EVA suit like those worn on the moon during the Apollo missions. Were they able to construct a better suit than those worn decades ago? Ross said the answer was yes ... and no.
"Some of the detailed designs were almost replicated because there are some limited options, for example designing a soft shoulder. There's only so many different ways you can do that," she said. "Now some of the other joints, like the elbows and the knees, were significantly better, and the gloves, of course, have come a million miles from the Apollo gloves."
"But these guys had never designed spacesuits before. Nobody had designed spacesuits before, so they did a really good job."
Her current focus is the development of a new pressure garment for the Constellation Program, which will carry humans back to the moon and beyond.
The scientists and engineers involved in the Constellation Program are currently looking at a design of spacesuits that would incorporate as much commonality as possible while still serving different purposes: launch and entry, EVAs in microgravity, and EVAs on a lunar or planetary surface. Although challenging, this design would allow the suits to perform different functions while taking up less space.
Engineers are currently exploring the functional requirements for future suits, specifically how those requirements are different from current needs.
"If you're on the lunar surface, what are you going to be doing on there? Geology. OK, if you're going to be doing geology, what do geologists do? How do they move to do their job?" Ross explained. "Once you have a good feel for what the requirements are, then you start trying to figure out what architecture will allow that."
Proposed suit designs will go through a feasibility study to make sure they meet the requirements and then on to a detailed design phase where factors like color and size will be determined.
When Constellation suits are flown, it will be the first time in 30 years NASA has used a new spacesuit, and the new suits have quite a bit more required of them, Ross said.
"It's a challenge," she admitted. "You're always widening your path toward the ideal. Ideally you'd build a spacesuit that weighs almost nothing, is very comfortable, allows you to move as if you don't have a spacesuit on. There is probably an unattainable ideal out there, but you're always working toward that."
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services