[The Journey’s “Fashion Columnist” returns with a timely piece on the latest advancement in sartorial science…]
by Gwyn Conaway
Last month, on February 20th, 1962, John Glenn became the second American to leave behind our earthly constraints for the majesty of space.
Less than one year after Alan Shepard’s historic suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket, John Glenn ascended to low Earth orbit in his spacecraft, Friendship 7. He circled the Earth three times at speeds upwards of 17,000 miles per hour, and persevered through the crushing force of nearly eight times the force of Earth’s gravity Gs at reentry into our atmosphere.
What a time to be alive! We are witness to human history! This is a milestone in a long journey toward chasing the unknown. Never have I been more certain that we are explorers, creatures of adventure. And what better bedfellow to our curiosity than innovation? For to accomplish his mission, Colonel Glenn required two spacecraft: the bell-shaped Mercury, as well as his formfitting personal capsule – the Mark IV spacesuit.
Our newly beloved Space Age is thanks, in no small part, to a little-known mechanical engineer and designer named Russell Colley at B. F. Goodrich Company. Owing to his career-long devotion to high-altitude pressure suits, Colley has been deemed the Father of the Spacesuit, the First Tailor of the Space Age. Mark my words, his Mark IV spacesuits, with their sleek and futuristic design, will inspire generations of fashion to come.
The Mark IV rides on the coattails of many pressure suits designed by Colley and others over the years. Its evolution is a testament to American doggedness and bears the fruits of the unbridled technological advancements in textiles and garment manufacturing we’ve seen through the past decade.
The Post pressure suit, first flown in 1934. This suit had a skewed visor to favor Wiley Post’s one good eye.
Colley first began his groundbreaking work in 1934 when Wiley Post, the aviator who achieved fame through making the first solo flight around the globe, commissioned him to design the world’s first pressurized suit for high-altitude flight. Later the same year, after two failed designs, Colley built a rubber bladder suit with long underwear and a diver’s helmet on his wife’s sewing machine. This suit launched Wiley Post 50,000 ft into the air and jump-started an evolution over the next thirty years that leads us to our current moment of triumph – the Mark IV spacesuits.
John Glenn being fit for his Mark IV, destined to carry him into orbit last month. What once looked like a diver’s suit has now been transformed into a feat of futuristic design and engineering.
From 1941 to 1954, the David Clark Company designed and built twenty pressure suit models for the U.S. Military. When David Clark’s funding dried up, B.F. Goodrich, where Colley worked, was offered the contract. Colley himself built seven suits at B.F. Goodrich. They started this contract with the Model H (the 8th letter of the alphabet and their 8th suit design, in case you were wondering). Models H through R were built and tested before the company began the Mark series that would take Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and now John Glenn into space.
By the time B.F. Goodrich won the bid to build their Mark IV spacesuits in 1961, the U.S. Military and NASA had collectively funded more than forty pressure suit designs across three major engineering companies.
The Mercury 7 in a fitting for their Mark IV space suits. Note the sage green option for the suit in the back right.
The Mark IV, in addition to its sleek name, is a marvel to behold, unlike any other piece of flight equipment I’ve ever seen. Each suit is fitted by Colley in Akron, OH, where he attended to each of the Mercury 7 pilots. The gloves alone come in fifteen sizes: five palm sizes, each with short, regular, or long digits. John Glenn had a new feature added to his gloves specifically for his February flight: tiny lights affixed to the tops of each finger so he could read the instrument panels.
John Glenn shows off his finger flashlights. Also visible in this photo are the only two instances of metal bearings in the entire suit: the neck ring and glove attachments.
Space suits have made incredible strides since his Colley’s collaboration with Wiley Post more than thirty years ago. When pressurized, these high altitude suits inflate the interior, pushing in on the human body and out on the suit. This provides the pilot with enough atmospheric pressure to stabilize blood flow to the brain and keeping them conscious during difficult maneuvers. However, once these suits are pressurized, mobility becomes extremely limited, and even bending one’s fingers becomes a task of titanic strength.
Astronauts ‘test’ the Mark IV in a light-hearted ball game. Clearly visible along the outer seams of the arms and legs are Colley’s revolutionary elastic pleating to enhance mobility.
The earliest suits were outfitted with heavy metal hinges at the joints for mobility. In a stroke of genius, Colley departed from metal bearings and joints in the Mark series. Rather, he used adjustable cords and pleats to fold the inflated suit at important junctions. While the cords had originally concerned NASA, they proved invaluable in fittings, where Colley was able to replace the lengths of many of these cords with highly-tailored zippers, elastic seams, and pressure pockets for each pilot.
John Glenn’s waffle-weave long underwear can be seen here as he suits up. The waffling occurs across the back, buttocks, thighs, and biceps in reinforced panels.
It’s a daring, romantic choice. I’m sure I’m not the only one who saw John Glenn walk to his shuttle last month and sigh, “Ah, now there is a knight in shining armor!” I wonder how far into the future Russell Colley’s Mark IV will inspire children, artists, and science fiction? How long will the stamp of America’s Mercury 7 linger on the face of space exploration? Decades? Centuries?
Yuri Gagarin may have beat us to space in April of last year, but the cosmonaut’s orange utility suit will not leave such a glimmer in the eyes of our children. The Russians touched the stars first, but Russell Colley has won the hearts of the people of Earth.