Working with rocket propellants requires special protective gear. The two suits here are examples of rocket fuel handlers' outfits from the 1940s-1990s. Liquid fueled missiles such as the Titan I and Titan II in this gallery used dangerous fluids and toxic chemicals, and Airmen handling them wore these special suits to protect themselves when working with propellants. The black suit was for handling liquid oxygen and the white one for handling even more dangerous liquids.
Liquid Rocket Propellants
Liquid rockets use two fluids-a fuel and an oxidizer-as propellants. When the fluids combine, the mix is ignited, creating a great explosive force that pushes rockets forward.
Some propellants, called hypergolics, feature fuel and an oxidizer that ignite just by touching one another. Rockets like the giant Titan I and II in this gallery had separate propellant tanks to keep the fuel and the oxidizer apart. Over the years, rockets have used a wide variety of liquids, including oxygen, hydrogen, hydrazine, nitrogen tetroxide, and other more exotic substances.
These liquids can be quite dangerous. Liquid oxygen, for example, must be kept very cold at -297 degrees F. for it to remain a liquid. Touching such a cold fluid can cause serious injury. Propellants that must be kept very cold are called cryogenic propellants. Other liquids can be stored at normal temperatures, but they are very toxic and give off dangerous fumes.
Technicians still work with dangerous liquid rocket propellants today, but they wear more modern suits that give them improved protection and comfort over the two older suits on display here.
RFHCO or "Refco" Suit
This is a Rocket Fuel Handler's Coverall Outfit (RFHCO), known as a "refco" suit. Air Force Propellant Transfer System technicians wore suits like this in the 1960s-1980s. The vapor-proof rubber suit was fire-resistant and completely enclosed the body when worn with a helmet, gloves, and boots. The patches were repairs to keep the suit airtight.
The helmet contained a voice-operated two-way radio system with earphones and a microphone. The RFHCO also enclosed an oxygen-nitrogen breathing unit giving the wearer just under two hours' time in the suit. The suit had small ventilation ducts in the arms, legs, back, and neck to keep the wearer comfortable and to distribute oxygen.
The suit weighed about 17 lbs, and the breathing unit weighed 35 lbs. Technicians spent about a year learning how to operate the RFHCO suit and other equipment. After working with fuel or oxidizer, they showered in the suits to wash off any residual propellants, then carefully removed, cleaned, and stored their suits.
Rocket Fuel Handler's Ensemble
Technicians used this suit to handle liquid fuels and oxidizers, especially liquid oxygen. It was not fully enclosed, but it protected technicians if they were splashed with dangerous fluids. Suits like this one were worn in the 1940s-1990s.
The suit was made of rubber-coated cotton with fasteners to secure it over boots and roll-down cuffs to seal the gloves. Suits similar in function to this one came with hoods in various styles to cover breathing masks and provide eye protection. This suit did not require a breathing-air backpack.
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