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Obituaries

Siegfried Hansen, 90; Space Suit Pioneer

July 14, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Siegfried Hansen, an electrical engineer and inveterate tinkerer who 50 years ago pioneered the hard space suit only now being used in NASA missions, died of pneumonia June 28 at a convalescent home in West Los Angeles. He was 90.

In the 1950s, Hansen headed a Litton Industries team devoted to improving the vacuum tube, a key component of electronic devices from radar to the early television. The vacuum tube had many flaws, and Litton was keen to build a better one.

In Hansen's view, the way to improve the vacuum tube was to modify and test it from the inside--a brilliant, impossible feat. No one could survive in the airless atmosphere of a vacuum.

Litton commissioned a vacuum chamber large enough for a man to maneuver in. Hansen and his colleagues then designed a suit to be worn inside the chamber that mimicked the atmospheric conditions conducive to human life.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 01, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 381 words Type of Material: Correction
Air Force historian--A July 14 obituary of space suit pioneer Siegfried Hansen misspelled the name of Doug Lantry, historian at the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
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The suit, dubbed the Mark I, weighed 50 pounds and looked like a Buck Rogers fantasy. It had a rigid torso of aluminum, puffy rubberized appendages, ribbed joints and a helmet as square and ungainly as a comic book robot.

More important than its appearance, though, was its function: Unlike previous pressure suits, it maintained constant volume and geometry, which allowed the occupant to breathe inside the vacuum and to move with enough dexterity to handle a screw driver or power drill.

As transistor technology rendered the vacuum tube obsolete, Hansen's ingenious suit appeared headed for the same obscurity.

"Luckily, this suit at Litton happened to be reaching antiquity at about the same time as the birth of the space age," said Gary L. Harris, a space suit designer and historian in St. Cloud, Fla., near Cape Canaveral.

"That's what saved it from being put on the scrap heap. It had all the attributes of an extravehicular space suit."

He called Hansen "the father of the EVA," the extravehicular activity suit made expressly to sustain humans as they work outside a spacecraft above the Earth's atmosphere.

Hansen was born in San Francisco, where his father ran a bakery and ice cream store.

He majored in electrical engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he met his wife, Gwendolyn. They were married in 1939.

During World War II, Hansen lived in London and helped design early radar systems. After the war, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., to work on vacuum tubes for General Electric, and helped GE develop the picture tube. He owned what may have been the first television in Schenectady.

In 1946, he moved to California to join Hughes Aircraft. He often tested new radar equipment with the company's eccentric founder, Howard Hughes, as the test pilot.

Although visionary in many respects, Hughes resisted efforts to channel more resources into advanced electronics.

His reluctance spurred the departure of Charles B. Thornton, Hugh W. Jamieson and Roy L. Ash, who in 1953 became partners in a small microwave tube company in San Carlos owned by Charles Litton. They moved operations to Beverly Hills and hired scientists like Hansen, with the intention of concentrating on space research.

Hansen, Litton's director of research, set to work in 1954 to develop the manned vacuum chamber. But when he surveyed the existing aviation pressure suits, he found none appropriate to the task before him at Litton. They were too clumsy and lacked mobility.

What he came up with, in 1955, was a hybrid of hard and soft materials that provided strength and flexibility. A key feature was the jointed ribbing that allowed the wearer to bend his arms a full 90 degrees.

Hansen was the first person to test the suit inside the chamber. The risks were considerable. There was no air inside the 15-by-9-foot chamber, described by one observer as "just one big pot of nothing." Any failure in the suit could mean unconsciousness in seconds and death in minutes.

Hansen put on the contraption over long red underwear and breathed almost pure oxygen through a connecting hose. Doctors monitored his respiration, heart beat and blood pressure through special attachments.

He would begin the experiments by dropping two feathers, which fell like lumps of lead. Then he would light a vacuum tube to prove the absence of air.

When an interviewer observing an early demonstration asked him how it felt inside, Hansen just shrugged it off. "He was not a very outward person," said his son, Gordon, a Brentwood electrical engineer. "He was the kind of person who didn't say anything unless absolutely necessary."

The Air Force quickly recognized that the suit had other uses.

"In the mid-'50s, the prospect of space travel was becoming real," said Doug Langtry, historian at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. "The Air Force was interested, not in vacuum tubes, but in keeping people alive up there."

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