For Immediate Release: July 26, 2021
By Warren Duffie Jr., Office of Naval Research
ARLINGTON, Va.—To better protect Sailors from steam leaks on nuclear-powered submarines, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) recently delivered new steam suits to crews of the USS Vermont and USS Indiana at Naval Submarine Base New London, Connecticut.
Development of the suits involved TechSolutions, which is part of ONR Global, the command’s international arm; the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA); and the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF).
TechSolutions is ONR Global’s rapid-response science and technology program that develops prototype technologies to address problems voiced by Sailors and Marines.
“First and foremost, this effort was started by Sailors and Marines, for Sailors and Marines, and delivered to Sailors and Marines,” said ONR Command Master Chief Andrew Chupashko, who attended the suit delivery. “Sailors requested a better steam suit, and NAVSEA and TechSolutions took note. When the new suits were tested by the crews of the Vermont and Indiana, they were immediately well received.
“This was the first time in my 20-year career that I’ve seen a crew try out a technology and have no complaints,” Chupashko continued. “It’s a great example of how TechSolutions takes suggestions from Sailors and Marines and turns those ideas into equipment that will make warfighters more effective at their jobs.”
If pressurized steam lines aboard a submarine rupture, they can leak steam at extremely high temperatures, potentially resulting in severe injury or death. To make emergency repairs or rescue crewmates, Sailors must wear protective suits.
“In the unlikely event of such an emergency, a fast response is critical to safeguarding not only the individual, but the entire vessel and its crew,” said TechSolutions Director Jason Payne. “This new steam suit will enable Sailors to respond to steam incidents with more speed, mobility, comfort and dexterity.”
Although the current steam suits used Navy-wide have performed well since being introduced more than a decade ago, Sailors regularly request improvements to them. The suits are bulky—comprising boots, firefighters’ coveralls, an air tank and breathing apparatus, and a HAZMAT-style chemical suit. The whole outfit takes about five minutes to put on.
TechSolutions received one such improvement request from a submarine mechanic and partnered with NAVSEA to develop a solution. TechSolutions funded NCTRF to design a better suit, and NAVSEA gathered user input from the fleet, executed qualification testing and gained approval to field the new suit with several key improvements.
The new suit is one piece and 20-percent lighter—cutting donning time while maintaining protective strength. The air tank and hose for the breathing apparatus are worn on the outside, instead of under a chemical suit, allowing better access to oxygen. Now, the time needed to put on the suit is under three minutes.
Then there’s the unique style of gloves. While the current steam suit has mittens, the new model features “lobster claws” with thumbs and two fingers, making it easier to grasp tools, climb ladders and navigate the confines of a submarine. They also have leathery fabric for wiping the face shield if steam fogs it up.
The suit has internal pockets for holding cooling gel packs to reduce heat stress, and the legs can be adjusted to comfortably fit Sailors ranging from 5 feet to 6 feet, 4 inches in height.
Prior to final delivery, several suit prototypes were tested in a steam chamber and aboard three submarines, allowing Sailors to provide direct feedback.
“That feedback we received from sub crews was extremely valuable in making improvements to the steam suit,” said Bob Bassett, NAVSEA’s director of in-service submarine engineering. “We managed to address all of the problems that arose over the years and produced a suit offering superior mobility and protection.”
In the future, newly built Virginia-class submarines will feature the improved steam suits, and existing vessels will be retrofitted with them. The upcoming Columbia-class submarines also will be outfitted with the suits.
Learn more about ONR Global TechSolutions at https://www.onr.navy.mil/Science-Technology/ONR-Global/techsolutions.
Warren Duffie Jr. is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.
About the Office of Naval Research
The Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Research provides the science and technology necessary to maintain the Navy and Marine Corps’ technological advantage. Through its affiliates, ONR is a leader in science and technology with engagement in 50 states, 55 countries, 634 institutions of higher learning and nonprofit institutions, and more than 960 industry partners. ONR, through its commands, including headquarters, ONR Global and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., employs more than 3,800 people, comprising uniformed, civilian and contract personnel.