Getting Stuck Inside This Tiny Ball Was Part of Each NASA Astronaut's Training

This ball is a ridiculous Health and Safety mockup, that never actually made it off-planet. It’s basically the worst-shaped spacesuit that was ever invented.


1980: Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnick, Sally K. Ride, Anna L. Fisher, and Shannon W. Lucid clustered around a personal rescue enclosure prototype. Image credit: NASA

The above photograph of the ball with astronauts is an awesome mix of historical and irrelevant. The people are important: the first six women astronauts, all of whom went on to further ground-breaking accomplishments. But the ball they’re standing around is a joke.

The six humans in the photo comprised NASA’s first class of women astronauts: Sally K. Ride, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Shannon W. Lucid, Judith A. Resnick, Kathryn D. Sullivan, and Anna L. Fisher. While Ride is the most famous as the first American woman to go to space, the rest also participated in off-planet adventures as mission specialists. Physician Seddon went on three shuttle jaunts, and pilot Lucid flew on four shuttle missions, including the one that released the Galileo satellite to Jupiter. Engineer Resnick was recruited to the space program by Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, flying on the maiden voyage of Discovery before dying in the Challenger explosion. Geologist Sullivan was the first American woman to spacewalk during her first mission, and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope during a later mission. Finally, chemist Fisher helped develop the Canadarm for the space shuttles. In her single shuttle mission, she earned a pair of odd honours: she was the first mother in space, and is currently the oldest active astronaut.


October 6, 1984: Sullivan and Ride display a “bag of worms:” a sleep restraint with springs, clips, a bungee cord, and velcro strips. Image credit: NASA

The ball is a far different and substantially less successful story. In the early days of the shuttle missions, NASA started development on the personal rescue enclosure. Nicknamed the rescue ball, it was intended as a last-ditch device for emergency transport of astronauts between shuttles.


The fabric sphere was a claustrophobic’s nightmare: at only 86 centimeter (36 inch) diameter ball with a volume of just 0.33 cubic meters (11.6 cubic feet), it barely big enough for a astronaut to curl up inside it with an oxygen mask and a carbon dioxide scrubber. But don’t worry: the layers of urethane, Kevlar, and thermal coating were cut by a single tiny window to prevent total sensory deprivation.

If that wasn’t nightmarish enough, the world’s most compact and poorly-shaped spacesuit could only be zipped closed from the outside, and had no form of propulsion so needed to be hand-carried by another spacesuited astronaut. If you’re trying to figure out why anyone would opt for the ball with spacesuits available on-board, we’re splitting our bet between “hazing,” “drawing the short straw,” with a heftier stake placed on “entirely inappropriate cost-saving measures.” Unsurprisingly, the ball was abandoned at the prototype stage and never flew on any shuttle missions. Instead, NASA decided to send astronauts to ride the space shuttle while wearing a spacesuit, sidestepping the need for a rescue pod entirely.


Top image: An early prototype of the rescue ball with a death-glaring astronaut for scale. Later versions were smaller and opaque as the original test subject looked far too comfortable. Credit: NASA

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