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November 4, 2009

Students at Jackson Middle School in Albuquerque take the opportunity to see a high-altitude pressure suit up close.Students at Jackson Middle School in Albuquerque take the opportunity to see a high-altitude pressure suit up close. Sokolik showed attendees of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, students at area schools and members of the Albuquerque chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics the clothing that permits pilots to fly high-altitude missions. (NASA photo / Tom Tschida) In presentations at four Albuquerque schools and another for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in October detailing NASA's high-altitude flight suits, one theme was consistent - enthusiasm for aeronautics.

That enthusiasm grew when Dryden life-support technician Jim Sokolik asked students about the high-altitude pressure suit he brought with him. Students watched as Sokolik instantly inflated the pressure suit with a pump and explained how the lack of oxygen and pressure 11 miles up would cause pilots to pass out in six to eight seconds without the suits.

At Dryden, ER-2 pilots must wear such suits to survive in the harsh environment of high-altitude flight.

The ER-2 is the civil variant of the military U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. NASA's ER-2 aircraft are high-altitude research platforms that provide scientists and researchers the ability to gather information on Earth at altitudes that would be difficult or impossible for conventional aircraft or satellites to attain.

Kathleen Rutter, an anatomy and science teacher at Albuquerque High School, wanted her anatomy and physiology class to hear his presentation. As a teacher for about 30 years, she said this was the first time she was able to have a NASA representative in her classroom.

"I was very excited when I received an e-mail from science coordinator Trish Wagner saying that this opportunity was available to us. I jumped on it. It is a big thrill and the students were really excited about the visit," Rutter said.

That included a number of students at Albuquerque High School and all of the schools at which Sokolik spoke, where students asked how they could best prepare for a career at NASA.

Sokolik's advice: "Stay in school, work hard and do what you do well and excel at it."

Message received, said Albuquerque High School students Jourdan Beamont and Emily Williams. Beaumont said he intends to pursue his interests - which go back to his love of balsa airplanes - in either aeronautical or mechanical engineering. For Williams, she said her passion is to become an astronaut.

Sokolik showed video from an ER-2 flight and explained that it is difficult for pilots in the 35-pound pressure suits to move around. The added weight can add to pilot fatigue toward the end of missions that can be as long or longer than eight hours depending on the needs of the research mission.

"The pilot flying the aircraft in the pressure suit is like you wearing your winter clothes to ride your bicycle," he further explained.

Whatever the discomfort, the pressure suit can save the pilot's life in an extreme condition.

Sokolik showed people at his presentations a video of a glass of 70-degree tap water that was brought to conditions in a pressure chamber that simulated the environment at 70,000 feet and higher. When the water reached 83,000 feet, it boiled. In extreme conditions the pressure suit keeps the pilot's blood from boiling and the oxygen from pulled from his or her body, Sokolik explained.

Without a suit at high altitude, a pilot would lose consciousness, he said. However, the suit inflates in the blink of an eye and preserves adequate pressure for the pilot to get out of the hazardous situation.

People at the four schools and AIAA attendees were curious about a white ball hanging from the front of the pressure suit.

"When the suit inflates, the helmet raises and the pilot can't see. The gloves inflate so he or she cannot feel their fingers either. Sight and touch are gone. Even if they can't see, they can find the helmet adjustment and pull the helmet back down. They might not be able to easily feel the golf ball, but they know it's there," Sokolik said.

In the 22 years Sokolik has been working with NASA's ER-2 aircraft he said there have been just two times an aircraft he launched had an instance where the suit was inflated and that both times it wasn't a life-threatening situation.

"[The suit] is there in case something happens," he said. "Safety is always first."

Elizabeth Kallman, AIAA section chair, was impressed by Sokolik's presentation.

"I loved it. I want him to come back," she said. It was the first time she had seen a pressure suit up close.

Regardless of the venue, Sokolik's presentations had impact in inspiring the next generation of explorers and scientists and showing people elements of NASA's missions.

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Page Last Updated: August 15th, 2013
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