Before you can send an astronaut to space, you need to be certain you won’t destroy fragile human bodies during a harsh launch and reentry. To do this, astronauts get custom-molded seats tailor-made for their bodies.
Each of the Mercury 7 had custom-molded seats for the first crewed NASA spaceflights. But before seats could be made to cushion those famous names, the concept needed to be tested by creating seats for employees at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Plaster molds were made of each test subject (and later each of the astronauts) to properly mold the couches so that they could most efficiently distribute g-loads during launch and landing.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei waiting while his Soyuz seat is custom-molded to him in November 2015. Image credit: NASA
Although the details differ, the general concept remains the same with astronauts heading to space today. When astronaut Clayton Anderson prepared to ride on Soyuz, he said a team of five engineers “took measurements in places that I didn’t even know I had!” before tucking him into a Soyuz-mockup mini-bathtub and pouring quick-setting plaster around him. Now the next batch of astronauts destined for the Space Station are getting their molds made. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei described laying in the gypsum plaster as a chilly experience: “Warms as it starts to dry, but cold when poured in!”
The purpose is exactly same in the past as it is now: to have a snug fit during the dynamic launch violent landing loads.
The Mercury 7 astronauts examining their couches: Alan Sheppard [far left], John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, with director Bob Gilruth [far right] looking on. Image credit: NASA