Bubble Boy

In search of the perfect summer suit

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click to enlarge NOW THAT'S A GOOD LOOKIN' SUIT: An EMU will set you back $13.5 million. - Nasa
NOW THAT'S A GOOD LOOKIN' SUIT: An EMU will set you back $13.5 million.

You know, the beach in summer is a great place. Except for the sand, screaming kids, sea gulls poaching your snacks, sea lice, stingrays, jellyfish, the lack of parking spaces, and body-wilting heat. Even getting in the water doesn't much help.

So when the subject came up for the Summer Guide, I had a ready and realistic solution: buying or renting a self-contained, air-conditioned full-body suit.

I imagined myself strolling past the Don CeSar resort, plodding along in slo-motion like Neil Armstrong on the moon, carrying a portable A.C. unit with snaking tubes running to and from our suit. In 60 degree bliss.

But as always, between the idea and the reality lies the abyss.

My first call to locate a "loaner" A.C. suit went to the Tampa Fire Department. I figured that with fighting fires and scooping up chemical spills, they must have something like it. But Capt. Bill Wade said no. The closest thing he knew of is a cooling vest that Hillsborough County firefighters have.

So I turned to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. I've seen enough "monkey-viruses-infect-the-world" movies to know that these scientists are constantly in their anti-infection hoods that resemble Dr. Evil in space. I reached a spokeswoman who proceeded to give me a 15-minute dissertation on the differences between a Level A contamination and the "enhanced Level C personal safety ensemble" that CDC personnel might wear for, say, inhalational anthrax. But she couldn't answer my central question about air conditioning, and the suits definitely weren't available for my use.

In heated desperation, I turned to NASA. An EMU (extravehicular mobility unit, the full name for the spacesuits used by shuttle astronauts) would do the trick. It is air-conditioned and can withstand temperatures higher than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Its 280-pound weight might prove a problem in the soft sand, but not as high a hurdle as the price tag.

"The figures that I have, updated as of June '03, is $13.5 million," said NASA spokesman Joe Pally.

So I asked Pally for a loaner. Just for the summer.

"I don't think so," Pally said. "You'd have to have some nice collateral."

Wayne Garcia

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