Russell Colley created the spacesuits worn by the Project Mercury astronauts, including fitting Alan B. Shepard Jr. for his historic ride as America's first man in space on May 5, 1961.
Colley was born in Stoneham, Massachusetts in 1899. He originally wanted to design women's clothing, but his parents strongly urged him to enroll at the Wentworth Institute (now Wentworth Institute of Technology), from which he graduated in 1918.
In 1928, Colley moved to Akron, Ohio to become a mechanical engineer for the B. F. Goodrich Co. There, he made the "Riv-nut" that allowed a single worker to affix rivets to airplane wings. Also, after fellow engineer William Geer came up with the idea for the first aircraft de-icer in 1932, Colley was asked to make the device operational. Colley then tested the device during a storm that had grounded every other plane, according to a story in the Akron Beacon Journal. Plane de-icers became - and still are - a major product for Goodrich.
Inventing the suit
In 1934, Colley was handed a new assignment: help daredevil pilot Wiley Post reach the jet stream and break new altitude records. Post needed a pressurized suit, and Colley designed him one using his wife's sewing machine. The pressure suit had three layers: the innermost one was long underwear, the middle layer was a rubberized air pressure bladder, and the outer layer was made of rubberized parachute fabric. Rubber boots, pigskin gloves, and a diver's helmet with a removable faceplate were added.
Post tried the suit on September 5, 1935 and reached an altitude of 40,000 feet, an unofficial record. He eventually reached 47,000 feet in the suit.
Colley eventually left Goodrich to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There, he designed the space suits used by the Mercury astronauts. All six original Mercury astronauts went to Akron to be fitted by Colley for their suits, which were two-ply silver nylon coated with neoprene. He said his design was inspired by a tomato worm.
After Shephard's flight aboard Freedom 7, the Akron press dubbed Colley "First Tailor of the Space Age" and Goodrich saluted him as "Father of the Spacesuit".
Colley also designed special gloves worn by John Glenn, when he became the first American to orbit space in 1962. Glenn wanted the fingertips to light up so he could see his instrument panel, since lighting in the spaceship was sacrificed to keep the weight down. Colley received NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1994.
Colley collected 65 patents in his career. When he retired from NASA, he returned to Ohio where he practiced jewelry design with his exquisite gem cuts featured in The Lapidary Journal.
A watercolor artist, Colley was an original member of the Whiskey Painters of America, founded in 1951 in Akron by industrial designer Joe Ferriot. Colley and others perfected the genre of painting miniature watercolors using alcohol as the medium.
Russell Colley died February 4, 1996, in Springfield, Ohio.
- Johnson, Bobby H. and Mohler, Stanley R. "Wiley Post, His Winnie Mae, and the World's First Pressure Suit". Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1971 (available as PDF).
- ^ McGarrity, James M. Akron Life and Leisure magazine; March, 2003.Profile on Tony Cross, founding member of WPA.
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