Worcester, Massachusetts, lies 50 miles west of Boston and must be the most mispronounced city in America. (It’s pronounced “wuss-ter,” because of its relationship to Worcester in England, home of the sauce.) What’s also confusing is that, although Worcester only has a population of around 200,000, from whichever direction you enter this city, you become entangled in a suburban jungle of car parks, supermarkets, apartment buildings, and factories. The latter are hidden behind anonymous brick facades, and David Clark Company Inc. (DCCI), on Franklin Street, is no exception.
The company’s introduction to the spacesuit business came in 1941, when founder David M. Clark, a knitting manufacturer, devised the first anti-G suits (worn by pilots in World War II). This developed into hearing-protection and pressure suits, as well as helmets for pilots and astronauts of the United States Air Force and NASA.
The company offers a range of high-tech products, but from the outside, DCCI looks more like a wooden toy factory. This impression lingers behind the narrow entrance door. The only security you pass to gain access is a doorman who seems to know all 300 employees by their first names.
Visitors are shown around by an assistant, who leads the way first up an austere stairwell. There is the kind of silence of a school during the holidays. You are very conscious of your own footsteps. The route winds through offices with booths separated by half-height wooden partitions for the technical staff and aquariums for the more senior staff, past simple metal cabinets and desks from which friendly staff greet you as you pass by. The longer you stay, the more palpable the sensation that this company is involved in something special.
This is where astronauts of the future are measured up and subjected to final tests and leakage checks in their newly-delivered suits.
Door after door reveals similar scenes, until we arrive in the inner sanctum, a windowless room of modest proportions with wooden paneling and a linoleum floor. Anyone expecting a Eureka moment walking into a neon-lit future-room is in for a surprise. The heart of David Clark Inc. -- master tailor of suits for space shuttle astronauts, a company that has clothed every elite pilot to have conducted missions as a spy or a test pilot in ultra-fast, secret jets -- is a room in which the only piece of digital equipment is the cell phone in our guide’s pocket.
There are pieces of equipment the size of cupboards, all of them analog and covered in olive-green tin paneling. Each one has shiny chrome controls and gauges. Measuring beakers and other random equipment is scattered about.There is a pulley dangling from the ceiling to simulate a parachute jump, and even though there is a set of kitchen scales (inventory number DC1452) standing on a filing cabinet, you sense that this is a place where genius, aptitude, and experience coexist with a pioneering spirit. It’s like a traditional watchmaker’s workshop in here, but these people are not in the business of minutes and seconds. They’re about going into space.
Hanging on the walls is a small gallery of certificates documenting the DCCI team’s areas of expertise. Alongside them are two dozen photographs, of pilots standing at the gangway of their jets, of teams of astronauts in front of their spacecraft. Many of the photos have been signed by their subjects, thanking staff for their faultless work.
Dominating the room is a platform with a pilot’s seat on it. It resembles “Old Sparky,” aka the electric chair. This is where astronauts of the future are measured up and subjected to final tests and leakage checks in their newly-delivered suits. Only after these tests are complete do the engineers tick the final boxes and allow the suits to leave the premises. (Some come back after the mission is complete: trophies wrapped in nylon and kept in an archive room, complete with name tags, just like in a fancy costume shop. Diving suits, which DCCI developed as a kind of exercise, are kept here too.)
Felix Baumgartner sat in this test room for the first time in January 2008, for three hours of measuring up. The initial, critical introduction phase was already behind him. Art Thompson, the technical head of the Red Bull Stratos project and a well-known figure in the aerospace industry, reached out to David Clark to get the ball rolling. The situation at the negotiating table was decidedly frosty when Baumgartner first sat face-to-face with DCCI management. Expectations were high on both sides.
The aviation and space industries have been built on precisely-worded projects and contracts, a realm that, to the uninitiated, appears to lack the slightest hint of emotion. This is a business that relies on complete infallibility, with no place for feelings. For Baumgartner, this was all new. “Red Bull is simply a warmer world,” he says, “full of jokes and smiling faces, everything’s laid-back, no one wears a tie.”
Dress pants are an absolute must at America’s oldest country club, and Baumgartner, as usual, was wearing ripped jeans.
On the other side of the table sat John W. Bassick, then executive vice-president at David Clark Inc. He explained his firm’s reservations about civilian projects. The last time they were involved with one was in the mid-1960s, when Nick Piantanida, a truck driver from New Jersey, wanted to beat test pilot Joe Kittinger’s high-altitude leap record, set in 1960, which is also the record that Baumgartner will try to break. During Piantanida’s record attempt, there was an incident when he was at an altitude of 12 miles. Oxygen deprivation threw him into a coma; four months later he was dead. “I got to know him right here at David Clark,” says Bassick.
But Baumgartner and Thompson argued their case well. They won over the folks at DCCI with the idea of being able to develop, alongside the Red Bull Stratos team, a prototype for the next generation of full-pressure suits, which might save the lives of future astronauts. That evening the two parties dined at The Country Club in nearby Brookline. Dress pants are an absolute must at America’s oldest country club, and Baumgartner, as usual, was wearing ripped jeans. Thompson came to the rescue with another pair but, as he’s considerably larger than Baumgartner, so too were the borrowed pair of pants. “I sat there,” says Baumgartner, “looking like a Bulgarian car salesman.”
Baumgartner underwent initial testing in a suit similar to the kind made for reconnaissance aircraft pilots, explains Mike Todd, a member of Baumgartner’s mission team. Todd is the mission’s life-support engineer; he is responsible for every aspect of the suit and how it functions in coordination with the rest of the mission’s equipment. He also helps Baumgartner into the suit before the jump to conserve his energy, making sure each component is positioned and sealed perfectly.
From parachuting to BASE-jumping to crossing the English Channel in a suit with a carbon wing, Baumgartner has had a great deal of experience with different types of suits. (“I’ve also been to weddings,” he says.) But his Red Bull Stratos suit brings with it greater difficulty: little movement, a narrow field of vision. Then there’s that claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in narrow confines, and finding it hard to breathe. “Your breathing always meets resistance,” says Baumgartner. “It’s like holding a permeable cloth up to your mouth and then running fast. OK, so you get enough air, but you have the feeling that it’s too little.”
Joe Kittinger, whose record-setting jump Baumgartner is trying to top and who has become a vital member of the Red Bull Stratos team, is under no illusions about a man’s relationship with his suit. “Felix should spend as much time as possible in this suit,” he says. “It has to become like a second skin to him.” (Baumgartner needed psychological help to be able to wear the suit, the story of which is featured in the March edition of The Red Bulletin, available to download on iPad.)
It takes hundreds of hours before a suit such as Baumgartner’s is finished, at a rate of one per month.
Back on the tour, the DCCI assistant continues to the area where 12 specialists finish off the suits. Even in these low-ceilinged tailoring rooms, DCCI prioritizes tradition.
Time has been deliberately put on hold here. It is in this room that seamstresses craft the netting -- a layer to be sandwiched between the airtight underlay and the outer protective layer of a suit -- on machines that have performed their duty, clacking away, for the past 40, 50 years.
Netting prevents the innermost layer of the spacesuit from inflating incorrectly. It’s like complicated macramé, resembling the chainmail of a Samurai. David M. Clark, the company’s founder, helped develop the mechanical marvels that weave the netting, row for row, into complex webs.
The suit materials are state of the art, breathable, and fireproof but are still cut using shopworn templates on large, flat wooden tables. The people who work here are virtuosos with scissors, measuring tapes, and tailor’s chalk. The many individual pieces are sewn together on old Singer sewing machines. Stitch by stitch, every seam is checked several times over and documented. It takes hundreds of hours before a suit such as Baumgartner’s is finished, at a rate of one per month. In the event of a power failure, this department wouldn’t stop producing. The workers would just light candles and their Singers would keep on singing.
Check out the June 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands May 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.