For most of us, that would be a nightmare.
Imagine being curled up in a 90 cm (36 inch) ball of fabric with a small window and a small air tank while dangling from the Canadarm. As your tiny sphere shifts, through your tiny window you see Earth, then the Space Shuttle, which was damaged in an accident requiring rescue, and then Earth again. Panic would set in pretty quickly.
But that’s exactly where Space Shuttle astronauts could have found themselves in an emergency if NASA’s Personal Rescue Enclosure (PRE) had been put into practice.
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NASA developed the PRE simultaneously with the Space Shuttle program. Also called the rescue ball, it was designed to transport a single astronaut from a damaged shuttle to a rescue shuttle. NASA made a prototype, but it never went on a mission.
“Should a shuttle orbiter become incapacitated, the commander and payload specialist are placed in a personal rescue zone. The pilot and mission specialist will put on their spacesuits.”
From NASA Facts: Space Shuttle
The PRE was only 0.33 cubic meters or 12 cubic feet. It consisted of three layers of fabric: urethane, kevlar and an outer thermal layer. It had a small Lexan window and zips for getting in and out. A single astronaut could fit inside, and it had a carbon dioxide scrubber/oxygen supply that would last an hour.
If this unit sounds weird to you, akin to the school emergency drill “Hide under your desk during a nuclear attack,” who can blame you?
A demonstration of the PRE. Photo credit: NASA. Source: Kenneth S. Thomas, Harold J. McMann: US Space Suits. 2nd Edition.
The PRE was designed for a scenario where there weren’t enough spacesuits for everyone. Before the Challenger disaster, space shuttle crews did not wear space suits. In the event of an accident and if there was enough time to launch a rescue shuttle, the PRE system would be deployed.
The PRE remained attached to the Space Shuttle until the airlock was depressurized. A suitable astronaut from the rescue shuttle then transported the PRE and the astronauts in it to the rescue shuttle. It could also be moved with the Canadarm, or along a line connecting the two shuttles, like a shirt on a clothesline. NASA planned to transfer an entire crew from a damaged shuttle to a rescue shuttle in this way.
This image shows a rigid demonstration version of the PRE, complete with breathing holes. The astronaut in it doesn’t look too happy and is wearing an orange Skylab uniform for some reason. Photo credit: NASA
NASA, as always, was keen to let the general public know about their work. The PRE was no exception. In a 1979 brochure entitled “NASA Facts,” they spoke with confidence about the upcoming space shuttle program and how it “…will convert massive and costly space missions into routine, economical operations that will affect people everywhere.” bringing the greatest possible benefit to the world.” In this brochure they showed the PRE and explained its relevance.
Cover photo from the 1979 NASA brochure “NASA Facts: Space Shuttle”. Photo credit: NASA
It’s always interesting to go back to a time when the shuttle program hadn’t even started yet. Some of the hopes related to the program have been fulfilled, and people around the world were probably hopeful too. That gives you hope for humanity. But it’s a little amusing to see the PRE being presented in the same breath.
“Should a shuttle orbiter become incapacitated,” the 1979 pamphlet stated, “the commander and payload specialist will be placed in a personal rescue area; The pilot and mission specialist will put on their spacesuits.”
Two more images from NASA Facts: Space Shuttle. Photo credit: NASA
In the run-up to the shuttle program, the trade press reported extensively on the program. The PRE even made it into the Popular Mechanics column, ads for competing cigarettes, and ads for wood-paneled station wagons.
In the end, the PRE was abandoned. Common sense prevailed and every passenger on the space shuttle was given a space suit. In hindsight, the PRE seems more like a brutal ritual of bullying than emergency preparation. The thing only closed on the outside, the window was tiny, and the poor person who was rescued was completely at the mercy of another astronaut. You can imagine sorority boys putting deposits in and pouring Pabst Blue Ribbon through the air hose connector. But we should not be too harsh on our predecessors.
The type of spaceflight the shuttles would participate in was unknown at the time, and the shuttle program changed everything. If there were a few missteps along the way, then what? Nobody got hurt. You don’t get where NASA is without trying ideas, testing them, and then abandoning those that deserve to be abandoned.
These groundbreaking women are the first six female NASA astronauts to be featured with the PRE. Maybe they smiled because they knew the PRE was deserted and they never had to curl up in it. Left to right: Margaret R (Rhea) Seddon, Kathryn D Sullivan, Judith A Resnik (RIP), Sally K Ride (RIP), Anna L Fisher and Shannon W Lucid.
Astronaut safety is of paramount importance to NASA and they have developed much better technologies to protect astronauts. All astronauts working outside the ISS now wear the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER) system. It is a jetpack that will allow astronauts to return to the ISS if their tether fails or they become separated from Canadarm 2 and Dextre. It has been in use since 1994.
Left: The SAFER system and its control. Right: NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio with the SAFER system. Image Source: L: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1082118 R: By NASA – http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/shuttle/sts- 131/html/s131e009470.html, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10007723
The shuttle program is now in the history books and the PRE would not have helped in accidents of this nature that the program suffered. But if there is an accident in the future where astronauts are forced to travel to a rescue ship, the SAFER system is better than stuffing them in a cloth bag like dirty laundry.