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The Spacesuit Maker


Adam Korona and Spacesuit

Written by Mikenna Pierotti
Photographed by Mark Mulligan

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When you see the next generation of spacesuits, there’s a good chance you’ll be looking at Adam Korona’s work.

For a decade or more, Korona has worked on the xEMU (explorationextra-vehicular mobilityunit) team, tasked with reinventing NASA’s spacesuit for the next evolution of space exploration in which astronauts are expected to spend more time outside their spacecraft. His work has included working in the area of developing liquid cooling and ventilation in a suit for activities outside a spacecraft. And he recently started working on technologies that evaporate water to lower a suit’s temperature.

“The spacesuits that are used on orbit right now were designed in the 1970s.” Korona said. “And a lot of the hardware is from the’80s, when we had a space shuttle and the mindset was, ‘I’m going to go up into orbit, stay on the space shuttle fora week or two, do three or four space walks, come down and then take the entire suit apart to clean it and make sure it’s OK to use again.’”

Today, spacesuits are asked to do a whole lot more. “Now we take that same spacesuit, keep it on orbit for about five years and try to have about 25 spacewalks,” he said. “We’re really stretching what that suit was designed for.” Everything from dust to CO2 to moisture can be life-threatening for an astronaut.

That’s where Korona comes in. “What my team has been doing is developing technologies that will allow a space suit to perform 100 spacewalks with high reliability. That way, you don’t have to send 10 suits because they break down every 10 space walks. You can have one that is a reliable suit for a very long term.”

Korona, BS ’97, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, has worked on the cutting edge of his field his entire career — from Lockheed Martin to Boeing to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he is now. Because lives are on the line, Korona is not only a designer. He’s a tester. You might even say he’s a guinea pig. He lives for the hands-on science — a passion that really started in undergrad.

“One of the things I really loved at WVU was the design projects where you got to actually build something with your hands,” he said. “That really taught me that theory is good, but how it works in the real world is often very different.”

Korona loves to get inside his own suits and work out the kinks himself. As part of his job , he regularly dons suits like the Z-1, which looks like Buzz Lightyear’s suit, and scuba dives while performing tests in challenging environments like the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which mimics the weightlessness of space with a complete mock up of the space station inside. The Z-1 — with its more flexible joints and a hatch that allows the suit to dock with a portal on the space craft to prevent the infiltration of dust or the loss of air — was named one of TIME’s Best Inventions of the Year in 2012. He’s also worked on the Z-2 (pictured).

Korona and his team know deep-space trips, even human outer-planet exploration to places like Callisto, the fourth of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, could very well happen in our lifetimes. And we have to be ready.

“When we go to Mars, when we go back to the moon, we’re going to spend a year or more,” he said. “Yes, we will have robots. But we know people will be doing some of the most important science, the analysis, the quick thinking that only humans can.