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Surviving the edge of space

Speaking at UND, Spacesuit Engineer Louis Carfagno shares early career experiences supporting the ultimate spy plane

The SR-71 “Blackbird” is a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft developed and manufactured by Lockheed Corp., Wikipedia notes. It was operated by both the U.S. Air Force and NASA. National Archive photo.

Throughout his career, Louis Carfagno has suited up more than 100 astronauts for missions to space, including Hollywood astronauts.

His expertise as a life support systems engineer – in charge of preparing pressurized suits and survival equipment for pilots and astronauts – put him in the room with Ben Affleck and Clint Eastwood as they prepared for roles in the space flicks “Armageddon” and “Space Cowboys,” respectively.

For more than 15 years, Carfagno served as a spacesuit engineer for United Space Alliance, NASA’s primary contractor for the space shuttle program. For his work on Mission STS-112, an 11-day mission to the International Space Station by the shuttle Atlantis in 2002 – one of many missions for which Carfagno played a similar role – Carfagno received the Silver Snoopy Award from NASA.

The award is one of the highest forms of recognition in the aerospace community.

But, in presenting to UND’s Space Studies Colloquium Series on Monday, the decorated engineer and human physiologist wanted to talk about orange suits – the suits he worked with during his four years in the U.S. Air Force from 1987 to 1991 – rather than white ones worn by astronauts.

“The space shuttles are near and dear to my heart, but the SR-71 is one of the greatest aircraft in the world,” remarked Carfagno, in connection with the title slide of his talk: “The SR-71: Supporting the Greatest Plane in History.”

Among the images and videos Carfagno shared, this slide showed the cockpit of an SR-71, which Carfagno sat in every morning as he prepared the seating assembly, also pictured. Before each mission, Carfagno and his team installed the systems that could allow flight crews to eject from the aircraft in emergency situations. Also shown are some of the pilots and their pressurized suits, which Carfagno was also responsible to help prepare before missions. Zoom screenshot.

Spies at the edge of space

If you’re wondering what a jet has to do with Space Studies, you should know that the Lockheed SR-71, better known as the Blackbird, was by no means an ordinary aircraft.

“The SR-71 operated at speeds topping Mach 3.2 and altitudes around 85,000 feet to avoid threats. The aircraft could out-fly missiles launched from Earth’s surface,” Carfagno said.

For perspective, that’s faster than 2,500 miles per hour – faster than a bullet – at heights near the edge of space, where the curvature of Earth is clearly visible.

Much of Carfagno’s talk was based on these facts. Upon entering the Air Force, Carfagno became a flight physiology specialist through eight months of rigorous on-the-job training. He was then responsible for donning and doffing the flight suits worn by pilots and their partner reconnaissance systems officers, as well as preparing the SR-71 for flight by installing the seating assembly and parachutes necessary for egress. On the side, he was a technician for hyper/hypobaric chamber operations, where he helped train high-altitude pilots for the varying atmospheric pressures of their missions, and helped them recover once on the ground, if necessary.

Carfagno, now an adjunct professor for Embry-Riddle University, recalled, “I would sit in the cockpit while getting it ready, and I used to think, ‘Do I really belong here? Should I be doing this?’

“You take it as a mundane task every day, but you’re always reminded that it’s a big responsibility.”

“Big responsibility” may be an understatement, as the SR-71 was key to the nation’s intelligence-gathering against the Soviet Union and other Cold War adversaries for decades. Developed in the early 1960s, Lockheed’s Blackbird was the answer to a seemingly impossible request: a recon aircraft that couldn’t be shot down.

Carfagno acknowledged how greatly President Dwight Eisenhower valued the SR-71’s predecessor, Lockheed’s U2, but also how necessary it was to advance the state of technology and prevent losses over enemy territory – something that had happened twice in the early 1960s.

“Of the 32 SR-71s that were built, a number of them were lost to malfunctions, but none to enemy action,” Carfagno said. The aircraft was officially retired from Air Force service in 1998, more than 30 years after it became publicly known. Its work is now taken on by satellites and unmanned aircraft.

This slide from Carfagno’s presentation lists the places he went while supporting SR-71 missions, as well as those of the U2 aircraft. Zoom screenshot.

Responsibilities of consequence

Despite the inherent joys of travelling the world as a young adult, the work of the 40 or so people it took to keep a Blackbird operational was serious business. Carfagno referred to a quote from Johnson Space Center’s Missions Operations Directorate: “To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences,” he recited.

Carfagno went on to say that while the experiences he had were wonderful, there’s a point where people reach complacency in a given situation.

“I teach classes about human factors, and this next story is a classic example of the human aspect of that topic,” he said.

In 1989, on an otherwise routine flight out of Okinawa, Japan, Carfagno’s unit lost contact with the pilot and reconnaissance officer. “Everything is great, everything is fine, and we’re waiting for them to come back, then nothing.”

It turned out that a component had frozen during flight, which caused the immediate disintegration of the aircraft’s port engine, which subsequently sent shrapnel through critical hydraulic lines. In layman’s terms, the plane made an unexpected landing in the South China Sea.

A majority of the SR-71 was recovered, but it was promptly dumped back into the sea – this time in the depths of the Mariana Trench – due to the cost and logistics of disposing the wreckage by other means.

But the crew survived. Carfagno said that he and his team were able to talk to the two flight crew members and learned that everything about the ejection sequence they installed had worked correctly. This left Carfagno’s group with a good feeling, and a deeper sense of commitment to the mission at-hand.

“To me those two were rock stars, and in listening to their experience the gravity of the situation set in,” Carfagno said. “We thought about, ‘What if we didn’t strap them in correctly? What if the sequences didn’t work, or the oxygen bottles weren’t installed right?’ A lot of stuff could have gone wrong.

“But we were just doing our job by following processes, procedures and checklists, and soon enough those two were flying another SR-71 on missions. There were lessons learned for everyone.”

Carfagno said it was an experience that followed him through the rest of his career, as he went on to work with dozens of astronauts and contribute to the triumphs of NASA’s shuttle program.

UND Professor Pablo de Leon (left) hosted Carfagno for Monday’s virtual Colloquium Series installment, a regular event for UND’s Department of Space Studies. Zoom screenshot.

Valuable perspective for UND

In hosting Carfagno for the evening, albeit virtually, Professor and Department Chair of Space Studies Pablo de León said that while Air Force operations aren’t the typical topics for the Colloquium Series, human factors of spaceflight are components of the Space Studies curriculum.

The extreme nature of the SR-71’s operations also drew comparisons to spaceflight, given the equipment necessary to keep flight crews alive.

“Nearly a third of Space Studies’ students are in the military, and many students are fans of the SR-71 and its near-space capabilities,” de León told UND Today. “Dr. Carfagno was able to offer some perspective on those operations, which is an area where many students could be working in their future careers in the aerospace industry.”

The professor also pointed out that UND owns and operates its own high-altitude chamber, much like the one Carfagno worked with as a technician. The chamber is capable of replicating many of the scenarios that Carfagno talked about with respect to hypoxia and potentially explosive compression.

“I thought what he shared through his presentation was valuable for students to see some of the work of human factors specialists, in the field,” de León said. “With some of our students working in operations more familiar to his topic, this was a great opportunity to see some things not normally covered in class.”

A full recording of the presentation, as well as those of past Colloquium Series speakers, can be found on the UND Space Studies website.