for National Geographic News
Thank Jim Sokolik and other life-support technicians for keeping the pilots of NASA's ER-2 high-altitude research aircraft safe and under pressure as the planes head into the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere.
Sokolik heads the High Altitude Life Support Team at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, California (California map).
He prepares and maintains the full-pressure suits that inflate around pilots and keep their bodies under sufficient air pressure during flight emergencies.
Without the extra protection, a pilot would die within minutes, should the first line of defensethe pressurized cockpitfail.
"As you go up in altitude, pressure decreases," Sokolik explained.
ER-2 pilots routinely fly above 63,000 feet (19,200 meters) to study hurricanes, forest fires, atmospheric pollution, and other disasters. (Related: "Hurricane Plane Flies Into Storms to Sharpen Forecasts" [June 2006].)
At that height, oxygen escapes from blood the same way the gas escapes boiling water.
"That's where the suit comes in," Sokolik said.
Sensors on the suit detect changes and automatically adjust pressure within the suit to keep pilots healthy and safe.
While pressure suits make high-altitude flight safer, wearing them is an exercise in patience and discipline, Sokolik says.
Although modern suits are lightweight and designed for increased pilot movement and comfort, the entire getupincluding helmet, boots, and glovesweighs about 35 pounds (16 kilograms).
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