Innovation

Smithsonian's Survival in the Skies highlights lifesaving space and aviation tech inventions

A new four-episode series on the Smithsonian Channel tells the stories of devices that save lives in the skies. TechRepublic talked to the experts to find out the technology behind the inventions.

sabre-fighter.jpg

The Sabre Fighter Plane is an aircraft featured in one of the episodes of the new Smithsonian Survival in the Skies series.

Image: Arrow Media/Smithsonian Networks

Parachutes, ejection seats, space suits, and jet engines are the space and aviation technology inventions featured on a new Smithsonian Channel series, Survival in the Skies.

The series, which debuts on Tuesday, November 28, 2017 at 9:00 pm ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel, begins with the story behind the space suit. The episode goes in-depth to show the technology that allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon in 1969 and that will eventually allow explorers to walk on Mars.

Tim Evans, executive producer of the Survival in the Skies series, said he was interested in working on the series because, "Space suits are one of those amazing things you don't really think about when you're talking about space travel, but it's vital. Parachutes, surprisingly enough, are a Renaissance invention, but it is key to allowing aviation to continue, and to getting objects on other planets."

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (TechRepublic PDF)

Space suit technology has greatly evolved since the first crude suits nearly killed early cosmonauts. The fascination over space suits continues to grow, and the collection at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is one of its most popular exhibits, said Cathleen Lewis, curator of the space history department at the museum.

"People are very interested in space suits because they are that very human artifact of exploration beyond our earth and on another world," Lewis explained.

The episode on space suits focuses on the first versions made by Russell Cully who was an engineer and technician for BF Goodrich in the 1930s and was called upon by Wiley Post to help him make a pressure suit. Post was a pilot in the 1920s and 1930s, and he discovered that the higher he flew, the faster he could fly, but there wasn't enough oxygen at those elevations. So the work began to develop a pressurized suit to put the pilot in an enclosed environment to supply oxygen and minimize the effects, Lewis explained.

The actual development of the first true space suit is a "bit of a gray area," according to Lewis. "The suits that the Mercury astronauts wore on their flights from 1961 to 1963 were technically space suits but they were on the side that is called punch and entry suit, something that the pilots referred to as the get me down suits. These suits, the Mercury suits, these are the silvery suits that you see Mercury 7 wearing. They were not designed for survival in outer space. They were designed just once the spacecraft re-entered orbit, if the astronaut had to eject he would eject from high altitudes."

The episode goes into the evolution of the space suit, from the BF Goodrich Mark IV suits to the Gemini suits to the current day versions.

The development of ejection seats

Another episode of the series will focus on ejection seats, which have saved the lives of more than 10,000 pilots since their creation. The episode debuts on Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 9:00 pm ET/PT, and it explains the design of rocket-powered ejection seats.

Bob van der Linden is the curator for the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, and he said they were developed by Germany during World War II because of high-speed aircraft and the need to make sure a pilot would clear the tail and propellers in the rear of the plane.

"After World War II, the British and particularly the Martin Baker Company spent a great deal of time and effort working on ejection seats. Mostly eventually rocket-powered ones to make sure the pilot is well clear of the aircraft in case of emergency. It got to the point where the speeds were such that if you just jumped out of the airplane, chances are you're going to get hit by the tail or something like that and that just won't do," van der Linden said.

"A modern ejection seat is a technological marvel and masterpiece. You can eject at, what we call zero-zero where there's zero altitude, zero air speed, and you can eject out of an airplane and when you're sideways and survive it. It'll fly up to a high enough altitude and deploy the parachute, and you come down safely," van der Linden said. "Nowadays they have gyroscopes in them and computers to make sure that if you're ejecting sideways or whichever way, and that the seat knows to get you upright and then high enough so when the chute opens up it actually gets you down safely. A lot of good it does to get you upright, but not high enough for the chute to work. That's a big, big part of the equation."

The episode shows a famous photograph of a MIG-29 from the Russian Air Force. "It was an air show, and it lost an engine and was going down nose first. And as the nose is crashing into the ground, the pilot did initiate the seat, and he literally comes out horizontal to the ground and then the seat climbs up to a couple hundred feet and the chute comes out and the pilot survived. I think he had a broken leg, but he should have been dead. He should have been dead and zero-zero seats are amazing and they do their job," van der Linden said.

The entire series listing is as follows:

  • Space Suits - premieres Tuesday, November 28, 2017 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
  • Parachutes - premieres Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
  • Ejection seats - premieres Tuesday, December 12, 2017 at 9:00 PM ET/PT
  • The Jet Race - premieres Tuesday, December 19, 2017 at 9:00 PM ET/PT

Note: Smithsonian Networks is a joint venture between CBS Corporation's Showtime Networks, Inc. and the Smithsonian Institution. CBS Corp. is the parent company of CBS Interactive, which owns TechRepublic, ZDNet, and CNET and other online brands.

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About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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