The astronauts themselves also received an upgrade of sorts. Since STS-5, and up to the Challenger disaster, they had only worn light-blue overalls and a clamshell-like 'crash helmet' with a limited supply of breathing air. Afterwards, however, NASA decided to revert to sending its crews into space with the best kind of personal protection possible. When the STS-26 crew lifted off in September 1988, they wore bulky, bright-orange partial-pressure ensembles known as the Launch and Entry Suit (LES). From STS-28 until STS-73, all of Columbia's fliers wore an LES.
Veteran astronaut Jerry Ross, who flew both before and after Challenger, has described the differences in wearing the different launch-and-entry suits. ''The cloth flight suits and the 'motorcycle' helmet gave you a much more dynamic sense of what was going on. With the launch-and-entry suits that we have now, you're in a pressurised suit. There's a lot more bulk around you. It kind of cushions things and deadens the sounds and the vibrations.''
The intention was to provide astronauts with hyperbaric protection during ascent, as well as cold-water-immersion protection in the event of an emergency egress over water. Designed and built by the David Clark Company - which also produced the brown-coloured suits used on the first four Shuttle missions - the LES bestowed a look of 'real astronauts' on crews once more. It was, however, a partial-pressure garment and further modifications would later be made, culminating in 1993 with the commissioning of a lighter, less bulky Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES). On STS-73 in October 1995, and all later missions, each Columbia flier wore this improved suit.
''Those partial-pressure [LES] suits utilise a system where you only pressurise certain critical portions of the body,'' said former suit technician Troy Stewart, ''and the way that you do this is inflate a bladder which pushes against a restraint layer on the suit and also exerts pressure at the same time on certain areas of the body, such as the calves and thighs and of course the head. You maintain pressure in these bladders, which gives you the counter-pressure to be able to get the oxygen back into the lungs where you need it. The full-pressure [ACES] suit, of course, puts them right back into a full-encapsulated environment [like that provided by the suits on the first four test flights] that protects the entire body.''
Whether or not the provision of the LES or ACES would have helped to save the lives of Challenger's astronauts is, said Stewart, "purely academic at this point'', but undoubtedly would have given them the benefit of better body protection and a capable life-support and parachute mechanism.
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