Shannon Lucid's spacesuit heads to auction
A rare piece of space history will be up for grabs when record-setting US astronaut Shannon Lucid’s spacesuit goes on the block at Bonhams auction house in New York City next week. The Russian-made Sokol KV-2 “Falcon” pressure suit was worn by Lucid while training for her mission aboard the Russian Mir space station where she set a new space endurance record. It is expected to fetch up to US$50,000 (£32,000, €39,000).
If you’re hoping to buy the suit with an eye towards refurbishing it for a future trip to the moon ala Robert Heinlein’s hero in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, this may not be the spacesuit you’re looking for. The Sokol KV-2, manufactured by the Russian firm Zvezda, isn’t the sort of bulky EVA suit with life support backpacks that you see in videos of spacewalks outside the International Space Station or documentaries about the Apollo Moon missions. The Sokol KV-2 is what is known as a “rescue” suit - and this particular one is a training version not intended for actual use in space.
As the name implies, the purpose of a rescue suit is to protect astronauts in the event of an accidental loss of pressure in the spaceship cabin. Since the person in the seat doesn’t need to, at most, do anything more than operate controls and is connected to the craft’s life support system, the suit can be much lighter and simpler than an EVA suit. That being the case, the Sokol KV-2 is more like the orange Advanced Crew Escape Suits (ACES) used aboard the US Space Shuttle - a suit designed to protect the crew during liftoff and re-entry. In many ways, it’s a bit like comparing a scuba outfit intended for tourists to a mixed-gas deep diving rig for working on oil platforms.
However, that doesn’t mean that Lucid’s Sokol KV-2 isn’t a true spacesuit. The ACES were based on the suits worn by X-15 pilots and even the Mercury astronauts’ suits were modified Navy Mark IV high altitude suits sprayed silver to make them, according to some accounts, look more futuristic. Similarly, the Sokol KV-5 is a derivative of the earlier Sokol aviation pressure suit. As such, it was designed to withstand the environment of space - just not outside the ship’s cabin nor with the wearer moving about. In fact, the helmet of the Sokol KV-2 doesn’t even fit unless the wearer is seated.
The Lucid suit up for auction consists of an outer shell of white nylon canvas in royal blue trim with a rubberized inner lining. The boots are an integral part of the suit, though the gloves are detachable and there is a very simple hose and cable attachment system for air and communications.
The most curious thing is the lack of a proper helmet. Instead, the “helmet” the suit uses is an attached pressurized hood similar to that used on Gemini missions with a hinged polycarbonate visor securing to blue-anodized aluminum clavicle flange. Because it is meant to be pressurized, the sleeves are set with adjustable articulating cables with webbed belt lashings to hold them in the proper position when inflated. The combination of these means that the suit is extremely uncomfortable and can only be worn with the visor closed while seated.
The real key to the sale is its previous wearer. Shannon Lucid was one of the first six women astronauts approved for flight duty in 1978. Born to American Baptist missionaries in China in 1943, she was raised and educated in Oklahoma, where she took a degree in biochemistry. She went on to become chief NASA scientist and flew aboard the Space Shuttle six times - five as mission crew. Her sixth shuttle flight came at the end of her visit to the Russian Mir space station from March 22 to September 26, 1996, where she was the second American and first woman to visit the station, also setting an American space endurance record of 188 days in orbit - 179 of which were spent aboard the Mir doing life science experiments. Thanks to this achievement among others, she was the first woman to be awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1996. Space memorabilia is rare and the historic nature of this suit makes it even rarer. The auction will take place on April 26, 2012. The sale includes a letter confirming the suit’s provenance.