Monday, November 23, 2009

Gloves work astronaut fingers to bone

Astronauts make it look easy.

They drift outside the International Space Station, doing repair and assembly work in the deadly vacuum of space with what looks to be the ease of us toiling in our garages. You hear calm as they chat with Mission Control. What you might not know is their fingers get beaten, smashed, bruised and scraped by the stiff and bulky (but life-saving) gloves they work in.

That's why the Astronaut Glove Challenge held in Titusville last week matters. NASA's been working to improve spacesuits for decades, thinking ahead to tougher missions. Now others are doing it for prize money and making an impact.

I put the current version of the gloves on once during a visit to the Johnson Space Center. It's surprising the force required to move your fingers the slightest bit. Making a fist was impossible for me. An athlete with muscular forearms would struggle. That's before the gloves are pressurized, becoming more rigid and stiff.

Inside, the surfaces are harsh and scrape up knuckles and skin even with protective under-gear. So, astronauts are keen on better gloves.

To get a little more insight, I checked with Tom Jones, a veteran astronaut and spacewalker who recently authored the book, "Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir." He's spent a lot of hours wearing those gloves in the underwater training pool at JSC and in orbit.

"The gloves today are much better than those used by Apollo astronauts on the moon," Jones said, "but for extended, routine work on the moon or an asteroid, or even for maintaining the space station, we need better glove technology to ease the workload and reduce wear and tear on hands."

The gloves are not custom-made for each astronaut. Crew members choose from standard sizes and adjust them after each practice to improve the fit. Jones covered sore spots on his hands with moleskin before each practice. The gloves feel less harsh with each use.

"By the time I flew, those gloves were well broken in, almost comfortable."

Once inflated, they get more stiff. Flexing fingers and grabbing objects requires strong muscles. Jones said early in training, he couldn't type the rest of the day after practice runs. "My fingers and forearms were as useless as noodles."

Once in space, brand new flight gloves -- not broken in -- are stiffer. "One of my fingertips was pinched so badly on the first spacewalk that it went numb. The nailbed was bruised and painful" after the spacewalk.

"The fingers are fat and stubby. Picking up small objects in a gravity field would be problematic. Tools are made to be big and easy to handle in stiff gloves. Cables and connectors are designed with big latches and plugs . . . I did find I could use the gloves in orbit to do delicate pinching and grasping, but it requires concentration and hard muscle work to achieve that."

Jones would focus on improving interior surfaces so the glove was "less bumpy, abrasive, and had an overall smooth, friction-free lining."

"I would also like some kind of mechanical assist that would reduce the effort required to flex fingers and grasp for long periods. Athletic training overcomes most of this problem, but fatigue is always a concern."


travis said...

It requires proper health training. You also need to check with fishers dentist.

hello said...

Jones covered sore spots on his hands with moleskin before each practice. The gloves feel less harsh with each use.