Dryden Life Support assists Proteus Team
By Sylvia E. Pierson
X-Press Assistant Editor
Three world altitude records are pending ratification following the Oct. 25 and Oct. 27 flights of Proteus. During these flights, the aircraft reached a peak altitude of 62,786 feet, sustained an altitude of 61,919 feet in horizontal flight and attained a peak altitude of 55,878 feet while carrying a 1,000-kg payload.
The partnership between Dryden's Life Support team and the engineers at Operations Engineering (Code OE) was a critical element of the mission. "In my opinion, these flights could not have taken place safely nor could these records have been reached without our partnership," said Life Support Section Chief Richard Borsch.
||Life Support team poses with Scaled Composites pilots following successful pressure suit testing. From left to right, Jim Sokolik, Glenn Hamilton, Kelly Snapp, Tracy Ackeret, Nick Kiriokos, Pilot Bob Waldmiller, Richard Borsch, Pilot Mike Melvill and Ray Kinney. (NASA Photo by Tom Tschida)
The Proteus, which Life Support members are involved, required a number of modifications when it was adopted for use in NASA's Environmental Research and Science Technology (ERAST) pro-gram in 1999. One of the modifications included a new cockpit pressurization system designed to support the high altitudes at which the ERAST Proteus would be flying. Because the Proteus had never before gone to the heights and temperatures associated with the space equivalent zone (altitudes above 50,000 feet), Dryden's Life Support team and the engineers from the Operations Engineering branch (Code OE) teamed together to ensure that it would do so safely and confidently.
"At altitudes approaching 63,000 feet, you can't take chances," observed Life Support Aerospace Engineering Technician Nick Kiriokos. This was especially true for the crew of Proteus, Mike Melvill and Bob Waldmiller of Scaled Composites.
||Nick Kiriokos, Ray Kinney and Kelly Snapp assist Proteus pilot Mike Melvill as he prepares to board the aircraft. (NASA Photo by Tom Tschida)
"Since a big part of the work involved modifications to the aircraft in order to enable it to go from a shirt-sleeve environment to a high-altitude pressure suit environment and because the crew had never been in pressure suits, it was critical that they understand all of the emergency procedures and were comfortable using the life support systems," added Life Support Aerospace Engineering Technician Kelly Snapp.
For the Oct. 25 flight, the crew had trained at Beale Air Force Base "to learn how to use life support equipment and flown approximately half a dozen flights with our new life support systems installed into the Proteus," said Borsch. The success of Proteus' new life support systems was a testament to the level of expertise and collaboration found throughout the team's body of work.
"The parameters and specifications came from Code OE, while Kelly [Snapp] designed the system. We used existing pressure suits, oxygen control valves from the SR-71 and check valves from the F-18 - each proven in their own systems and now modified for the Proteus. Then Code OE reviewed it for compliance and advised us on new technologies we could incorporate into the design," said Kiriokos.
"Nick [Kiriokos] came up with the procedures for the use of and egress from the new life support systems. We then team with the pilots - they wear the new suits and give us inputs for refining equipment or procedures," added Snapp.
"We're in the life saving business. New systems need to go through a lot of testing. We take proven equipment and add to it new, non-standard equipment. Anything non-standard goes through a formal cockpit review process with the pilots involved and providing their input," remarked Kiriokos.
It is clear that these teams work under the imperative that everything about a life support system must be easily understood and must work right whenever it is used.
"We make sure that our equipment, if and when it's needed, will work the first time, the last time, every time. We do a lot of training here. Things have to be done by memory," observed Life Support Technician Bobby McElwain.
"After all, there's no reset button," added Kiriokos.
The contributions of these teams can also be further reaching than originally intended.
"It's interesting when we see that the modifications we do here can also get incorporated into systems outside of the Center. For example, the modifications we made to the F-18 life support systems have been adopted by the Canadians for their F-18s," said Snapp.
"We're not pigeon-holed into only working with U.S. Air Force projects. The aviation world is at our doorstep," said McElwain. "There isn't a challenge that I've seen that we couldn't handle," he added. "That's because we're engineering technicians - we're involved in every phase from thinking of something new to implementing it."
Whether performing routine maintenance on life support systems or designing modifications to existing systems, "the work that these guys do is outstanding. They're working with systems that come from many different areas - Air Force, Navy, or civilian such as Scaled Composite's Proteus and tailor them to our mission requirements. You don't find that in the Air Force or Navy. Here at Dryden we do a little bit of everything - full life support systems, oxygen, full or partial pressure suits, ejection seats, you name it," said Borsch.
Mike Arebalo, deputy director of Flight Operations agrees, "On the [ERAST] Proteus we were trying to verify the [Scaled Composites] aircraft to go above 50,000 feet. The crew had to be in a pressure suit in order to prove that the hull could withstand the pressure at that altitude. Together we did it." Although the schedule can be aggressive at times, the team appreciates the opportunity to be a part of such a wide variety of programs.
||Nick Kiriokos prepares to assist NASA pilot Dana Purifoy into the Proteus for the Dec. 14 flight. (NASA Photo by Tom Tschida)
"We're involved in every project here - whether pilot, pyrotechnic, or parachute - so we're really busy," noted Kiriokos.
"Our life support equipment has been used in the F-18 High Alpha Research Vehicle (HARV), System Research Aircraft (SRA), Advanced Control Technology for Integrated Vehicles (ACTIVE), SR-71, ER-2 and Space Shuttle, to name a few," added Borsch.
The most recent test of the new pressure suit was conducted Dec. 14 when NASA pilot Dana Purifoy donned the new pressure suit and flew the Proteus to an altitude of 60,600 feet. The successful three-hour test again showed the effectiveness of the new pressure suit design.
"The Life Support team did a great job integrating a very unique system into a very unique aircraft," said Purifoy. "In addition, the records that were set Oct. 25 and 27 are a direct result of their work. They're a great example of what NASA is all about."