Family Beautiful Magazine’s Susan Short had the extraordinary pleasure of chatting with Todd Fulks, a 35-year veteran Space Suit technician.
Todd was inspired by his stepfather who worked in the glory days of the NASA Apollo program with none other than Neil Armstrong. He originally had planned to be an underwater welder but secured an interview with NASA and the rest is history.
As a child growing up, he dreamed of working at NASA. First started loading spacesuits into the Space Shuttle on the launch pad at age 21 and has traveled approx. 100 times to Kennedy Space Center for pre-launch checkouts. Also, traveled to Edwards AFB for de-stowing the space suits from the Space Shuttle after West Coast landings.
SS- Can you tell us what the EMU is?
TF- The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) is an independent anthropomorphic spacesuit that provides environmental protection, mobility, life support, and communications for astronauts performing extravehicular activity (EVA) in Earth orbit. Introduced in 1981, it is a two-piece semi-rigid suit, and is currently one of two EVA spacesuits used by crew members on the International Space Station (ISS), the other being the Russian Orlan space suit. It was used by NASA‘s Space Shuttle astronauts during the entire [Space Shuttle program] which was retired in 2011 and currently is the primary spacesuit for International Space Station spacewalks. The current EMU space suit is similar to the original unit that was developed in the 70’s, with several upgrades and new technologies. The EMU, like the Apollo/Skylab A7L spacesuit, was the result of years of research and development. It consists of a Hard Upper Torso (HUT), assembly, a Primary Life Support System (PLSS) which incorporates the life support and electrical systems, arm sections, gloves, an Apollo-style “bubble” helmet, the Extravehicular Visor Assembly (EVVA), and a soft Lower Torso Assembly (LTA), incorporating the Body Seal Closure (BSC), waist bearing, brief, legs, and boots. Prior to donning the pressure garment, the crew member puts on an item similar to a diaper called a Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG). The final item donned before putting on the pressure suit is the Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG), (a Thermal Control Undergarment (long johns) which incorporates clear plastic tubing through which chilled water flows for body temperature control, as well as Oxygen ventilation tubes. After donning the LCVG, the astronaut then puts on the LTA inside the airlock. The astronaut then dons the HUT, connects the LCVG umbilical to the umbilical in the HUT, and then locks the two parts of the suit together using the Body Seal Closure. Once the suit is turned on and checked out, the astronaut dons a “Snoopy cap“, a brown and white fabric communications cap dating back to the Apollo days, which incorporates a pair of earphones and microphones, allowing the EVA astronaut to communicate with both the crew members in the I.S.S. and ground controllers in Houston. After donning the “Snoopy cap”, the gloves and helmet are then locked on, and the suit is ready to pressurize. The suit’s regulators and fan are activated and the suit reaches an internal pressure of 4.3 psi (30 kPa). After the servicing umbilical is removed the suit is self sufficient under it’s own power. An EMU can support an astronaut for 8.5 hours, including 30 minutes of reserves in the case of primary life support Oxygen failure or a small hole in the suit. To perform an EVA from the Space Shuttle, the cabin pressure was reduced from 14.7 to 10.2 psi (101 to 70 kPa) for 24 hours, after which an astronaut had to pre-breathe for 45 minutes. For ISS EVAs, the astronaut also must pre-breathe 100% Oxygen to purge the Nitrogen from their blood to prevent Decompression sickness
SS- How heavy are the actual Space Suits?
TF- They are approx. 300 lbs. at Sea Level, and weightless once they reach orbit due to zero gravity, making it much easier to don a spacesuit in orbit than on Earth
SS- What happens if the astronaut becomes untethered from the station?
TF-The crew have Emergency protocol to activate a SAFER propulsion pack to fly themselves back to safety. It has the ability to fly like a jet pack with a joystick. The SAFER pack has 24 small Nitrogen thrusters that allow flight in any direction.
SS-I understand you work with astronauts from other countries.
TF- Yes, my team trains crews from several countries in our spacesuits prior to their mission aboard the International Space Station. There are 11 EMU Spacesuits in the world (3 of which are in orbit on the ISS) and are worth approximately 10 million dollars each.
SS- How do the astronauts train?
TF- The crew train usually about 1 year before a mission. This involves rigorous training on their technique for each specific task on their mission. This includes several underwater simulations while in the Neutral Buoyancy suit. The astronaut certifies their actual Flight spacesuit by performing a Vacuum Chamber Altitude run. During the Vacuum Chamber exercise me and my team verify the fit and integrity of the Flight spacesuit with the astronaut while he/she performs their training tasks. This training assures each crewman is totally prepared for any contingencies they might incur while spacewalking.
An accomplished drummer, Todd is a man of many talents. He currently plays in 2 bands, doing live music, in this era, safely approximately 3 times a month. One of the bands is called VHS, and is progressive rock- mostly from the 70’s and 80’s. The other band is called “That 70’s Thing” and is mainly cover music from that era with fabulous costumes to boot!
Todd Fulks is a true iconoclast. An accomplished Spacesuit technician and gifted musician- 2 careers that you seldom hear together.
Special thanks to Dan Warren of Warren Media and Marketing for providing content for this article.