Designing for the Space Environment

Overcoming the challenge of the vacuum of space

Concorde supersonic commercial airliner (Source: U.S. Government)
Concorde supersonic commercial airliner. (Source: U.S. Government)

During its long and operationally successful career, the supersonic Concorde crossed the Atlantic Ocean at speeds of Mach 2 at altitudes of up to 60,000 ft. While the passengers traveled in comfort, the pressure outside was only about 1 pound per square inch (psia). From human survival and engineering design perspectives, the difference between this outside pressure and the vacuum of space is trivial. In most aspects, the Concorde was a space transportation system.

What the successful operation of the Concorde and most commercial aircraft highlights is that the use of “aircraft-style” systems engineering principles and practices will enable safe human habitats to be constructed to support routine human operations in the vacuum of space. Through the application of sound engineering principles and practices, humans will be able to live and prosper in space through their engineering skills, just as they do across much of the Earth.

Left: Undersea hardsuit; Right: Spacesuit
Left: Undersea hardsuit; Right: Spacesuit. (Source: U.S. Government)

The U.S. Navy now uses a version of an undersea hardsuit capable of reaching depths of 2,000 ft. While the inside pressure is maintained at normal sea level pressure, the outside pressure is 60 times higher. The spacesuit on the right typically operates somewhat lower than sea level pressure. With the outside vacuum, the net pressure differential is less than one atmospheric pressure. Not to minimize the engineering challenges associated with designing a spacesuit, many terrestrial workers—such as undersea divers—use protective suits that are designed to meet comparable or greater operational environments.