Connecticut Firm Made Key Parts For Baumgartner’s Space Suit

by Categorized: Aerospace, Manufacturing Date:

No, the space suit worn by Felix Baumgartner in his record-setting jump Sunday from 24 miles above the New Mexico desert was not made by United Technologies Aerospace, formerly Hamilton Sundstrand, in Windsor Locks.

But the company that made the glove disconnect, the helmet disconnect, and some of the valves and fittings on the suit, Air-Lock Inc., is located in Milford. For Air-Lock, Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos mission continued a deep, decades-long involvement in space exploration.

“Air-Lock hardware has flown on every manned NASA mission,” said Michael H. McCarthy, the Air-Lock president and general manager.

Air-Lock, founded in the ‘40s, first made valves for the “anti-g” pressure suits worn by Allied fighter pilots.  The firm later designed and built the famous helmet used by astronauts for space walks.

It was acquired in 1998 by David Clark Co. Inc., the Worcester, Mass. company that made the Baumgartner suit. Clark makes suits for NASA, including the regular flight suits of space shuttle astronauts when they’re not walking around in space, and it makes the suits for Air Force high-speed and high-altitude aircraft.

The Baumgartner suit was custom-designed by Clark based on the design for SR-71 and U2 spy planes, including the hardware made by Air-Lock.

“We did all the machining in-house,” McCarthy said. “From a manufacturing standpoint, we’re extremely vertically integrated.”

That includes seals that the company molds in Milford, where Air-Lock operates as a wholly owned subsidiary of David Clark.

That’s not bad for a firm with 20 people.  Every component is made to order, so Air-Lock was well aware that the parts it made for the Red Bull mission were headed for a high-profile jump. But McCarthy said the Baumgartner components didn’t receive more care than the goods sent to the Air Force.

If the mission had gone off as planned last Monday, the Air-Lock employees would have watched it together at the office. On Sunday, they were on their own. “Very exciting,” said McCarthy, who joined the firm as an engineer around the time of the David Clark acquisition.  “I met Felix while he was up in Worcester for his space suit fitting.”

The crucial issue for the sky dive was flexibility and mobility. “Skydivers need to be able to use body positions and visual cues, but an inflated pressure suit and its helmet limit range of motion and peripheral vision,” the Red Bull Stratos information page for the suit says. “With modifications, including mirrors and added mobility, the Red Bull Stratos suit may serve as the prototype for the next-generation full-pressure suit.”

Air-Lock has done work for UTC Aerospace for decades, and was also on the team led by Texas-based Oceaneering International that competed against UTC for the NASA space suit contract.

Looking ahead to future growth for companies like David Clark and Air-Lock, the Red Bull Stratos jump was significant not only for setting a record. “We’re kind of on the cusp here in the potential for commercial space travel,” McCarthy said.

The Courant is using Facebook comments on stories. To comment on courant.com articles, sign into Facebook and enter your comment in the field below. Comments will appear in your Facebook News Feed unless you choose otherwise. To report spam or abuse, click the X next to the comment. For guidelines on commenting, click here.