10 Things about the history of the spacesuit
I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but there seems to be a lot of astronaut movies coming out right now. Maybe it’s because of the renewed interest in manned space missions since the success of the Mars Curiosity mission last year, I don’t know.It kind of feels like it’s 1998 again. But have you ever wondered how they designed the spacesuit? It’s become a pretty iconic look in its own right, in both science fiction and other cultural contexts. Thom Browne even closed his first Paris menswear show in 2010 with models walking down the runway in spacesuits.
The first spacesuit was designed for the Mercury missions (1958-1963). They were only meant to be worn inside the spacecraft in case of cabin pressure loss, so they are much less bulky than the spacesuits we know today. Made of aluminized nylon, which gives them a very distinct metallic sheen, the Mercury suits consisted of a helmet, lace up boots, and gloves. Stylistically speaking, they’re much more Lost in Space than Armageddon.
The Mercury spacesuit prototypes were tested on a chimpanzee named Enos. Yes, that Space Chimps movie is entirely real.
The Apollo space missions (1963-1972) required a different type of spacesuit than those designed for previous missions. It needed to be able to protect the wearer from the hazards of space outside the ship, which include things like radiation and extreme heat and cold, and they needed a suit that had its own life support. The Gemini spacesuit, which came before Apollo’s, could withstand a space walk, but mobility was limited because the life support was through the ship via a hose. Not very practical, and done away with entirely for the Apollo missions.
The final design features about a million layers. The first is a water-cooled nylon undergarment to regulate your body temperature. Then you put on a multilayered pressure suit with three layers – lightweight nylon, neoprene coated nylon, and regular nylon. On top of that there are 5 layers of alumized Mylar interwoven with four layers of Dacron for heat protection, two more layers of Dacron for further heat protection, and then two layers of Teflon to protect the suit from rips. This process takes about 45 minutes. The boots of the Apollo suit differ from those of past missions, because they’re designed to be able to walk on rocky terrain.
These suits have come to be known as EVA (Extravehicular Activity) suits, and have been used on pretty much every manned mission since Apollo, and have been made by ILC Dover since the 60s. ILC also makes NASA’s shuttle suits.
6//Colour Me Orange
The bright orange “pumpkin suits,” or Advanced Crew Escape Suits, are only meant to be worn within the shuttle during takeoff and landing. These suits are orange because it makes it easier to spot the wearers in case a search and rescue needs to be done. Underneath these are usually a g-suit, a tight fitting dark green suit filled with inflatable bladders that are designed to keep the wearer’s blood from pooling in their legs while in periods of high acceleration. When astronauts are just chilling in the shuttle, they wear Air Force issue flight suits.
In a similar fashion, EVA suits are white because it reflects heat and stands out in the blackness of space.
Russia and China, the only other two nations with manned space programs, have their own custom spacesuits. In Russia cosmonauts wear the Sokol suit for launch and landing, and the Orlan suit for space walks. Both are white. NASA sometimes also uses these suits. Chinese astronauts wear Feitan suits, which are modeled after the Orlan suit, and a landing suit based on the Sokol.
NASA has recently been testing new prototypes for deep space and Mars missions. They recently contracted ILC to make them the T-2, a prototype that is meant for deep space missions, and is more flexible and comfortable than EVA suits.
10//A Spacesuit On Its Own
There is a spacesuit that has been made into a satellite. Called the SuitSat, it was an Orlan suit that was recommissioned as a cheap satellite. It was launched into space on February 3, 2006, but has since been pulled back into our atmosphere and burned up.
//Extra Credit Reading List
“Why are Astronauts Spacesuits Orange?” by Clara Moskowitz (LiveScience). June 2, 2010.
“NASA’s Spacesuits Through the Years: Photos.” by Irene Klotz (Discovery News). May 3, 2013.
“History of U.S. Spacesuits.” by the Man-Vehicle Laboratory, MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (mit.edu). March 17, 1997.
“NASA – The History of Spacesuits.” by Unknown. (nasa.gov). September 16, 2008.