Space, Spaceflight

The Evolution of the Spacesuit

Spacesuits are a personal lifeboat for astronauts- a few millimetre thick layer between the extreme vacuum of space and survival. 

First up, what is a spacesuit?

Essentially, they are a personal space station! They have air to breathe, strong fabric/seams to keep the air in and maintain pressure, water to stay hydrated (& a ‘space diaper’ as spacewalks can last hours on end) and communication lines. They are worn during EVAs (Extravehicular Activity/Spacewalks), and times of high risk like during launch, when chances of cabin depressurisation are highest. Thankfully, they aren’t worn while on the space station! This is because the station is like one big space suit, with a suitable environment and a boundary between safety and an intolerable vacuum. 

The first ‘spacesuits’ weren’t for astronaut’s, but aeronauts! Emilio Herrara, an aeronaut from Spain, wanted to reach the stratosphere, the layer above the clouds, but knew that those before him had failed due to hypoxia (suffocating due to lack of oxygen), so he knew he had to build a suit with access to oxygen! He never got to use it because the Spanish Civil War broke out, but his ideas were then developed into protective gear for test pilots and Air Force pilots during WW2.

The first real spacesuits 

The Space Race began with NASA’s Mercury program and the Russian Vostok (восток) series. The mercury suits were *very* space age-looking. They were directly developed from pressure suits used in fighter jets, with a few tweaks like adding the aluminium coating (making it reflective for thermal control) and better gloves. 

Mercury Spacesuit Image Gallery | NASA
The Mercury Seven

These were then drastically improved for the longer, more ambitious Gemini missions to be more comfortable, more flexible and improvements to the helmet & gloves. There were 3 versions of this suit, with different purposes according to the mission requirements: G3C was used mainly for the first few Gemini missions, G4C for missions with EVAs, and G5C was only used on Gemini 7.

John Young (left) and Michael Collins (right) in the G4C spacesuits

The Apollo suits were the first to have its own internal life support system. Before this, the Gemini and mercury spacesuits had to be connected to an air tank by a hose. Their portable life support system allowed Apollo astronauts to wander the moon and is the ‘backpack’ seen in photos from the mission. Each is custom-built for each astronaut (and each needed 3 suits- one for training, and 2 for flight) and was an all-in-one suit. It had to provide protection against the rough lunar regolith (so had many layers), sturdier boots to be able to walk, greater flexibility to be able to use equipment and pick up rocks, and enough power & oxygen to survive for many hours out of the lunar vehicle. This is probably one of the most famous spacesuits.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon in the apollo suit

Space Shuttle suits were ‘off the rack’ and had mix and match parts to suit each astronaut best, without having to custom-build each suit for every astronaut, as- with over 350 astronaut’s flying on the shuttle- would have proven extortionately expensive! The first shuttle mission was similar to the Mercury suit- simply an emergency ejection escape suit. Following this, the type of suit changed over the years following development and response to the shuttle disasters, but remained that distinctive pumpkin colour, and was only for use inside the shuttle in case of depressurisation.

Crew members of STS-122 in orange flight suits wave as they exit the Operations and Checkout Building
The Crew of STS-122 heads to the launchpad in the distinctive orange suits.

For spacewalks, the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) was developed in 1983, and is still used for EVA’s today! Its the heaviest spacesuit yet, weighing 145kg when fully loaded with supplies… Good thing astronauts experience zeroG! The reason it is so heavy is that it carries enough water and oxygen for 8 hours of Extravehicular Activity. It is made of 4 main parts- the upper torso (covers chest and arms), the lower torso assembly (waist and legs), helmet, and the life support ‘backpack’. (Here is a great breakdown of all the parts) This spacesuit was used by NASA astronaut’s to build the ISS, fix Hubble, and for general space station maintenance. ESA astronauts either use the EMU or the Russian Orlan suit.

The EMU suit on a spacewalk

Russian Spacesuits

The Russian Orlan suit is very similar to the American EMU, but is one piece rather than split into an upper and lower. 

Empty Russian Orlan spacesuits
Two empty Orlan suits ready for cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Sergey Prokopyev

As I said in my last post, for the past 9 years, Roscosmos had monopolised at least the launch and landing parts of human spaceflight, as whenever someone wanted to launch to the ISS they did so on a Soyuz rocket, so had to wear the compatible Sokol suit. Like the one used on the shuttle and older missions, this is a ‘rescue suit’ not built for EVAs but to keep the astronaut alive in case of depressurisation.

These suits have also been bought by the Chinese for their space program, and have since manufactured their own that look very similar to the Sokol suit. 

Soyuz MS-15 crew (L to R- Hazza Al Mansouri, Oleg Skripochka and Jessica Meir) in their Sokol spacesuits

Being the first country to fly humans to space, they were also the first to use spacesuits in space (they are also the first to go to space without spacesuits, relying solely on the capsule!). The first spacesuit, used by Yuri Gagarin, was called the SK-1. 

They were also the first to do a spacewalk, with Alexei Leonov using the Berkut suit during his 12-minute exit from Vokshod 2. 

The Berkut suit

Future Spacesuits

Last year NASA revealed its primary spacesuits for the upcoming Artemis missions and beyond… it’s colourful, to say the least! I thought it was quite garish at first, but it’s growing on me! I like how the design is similar to the blocky Apollo ones, yet the colours bring a pop of modernity. You’ll definitely be able to see each other on the moon! Though it looks very similar in structure to the Apollo suits, the xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit) is definitely an upgrade, with a greater range of motion in the arms and legs, allowing astronauts to actually moonwalk than ‘bunny hop’ across the surface like the Apollo astronauts! The gloves and helmet have also had a thorough upgrade to improve dexterity and visibility. This suit will be used for EVAs in space and on the moon, but the in-capsule launch and re-entry suit is strikingly similar to the one used on the shuttle! 

Ep 120: Artemis Spacesuits | NASA
The xEMU suit (left) and OCSS (Orion Crew Survival System)

A new era of spacesuits has also been ushered in by the rise of commercial spaceflight. The suit that we saw Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken launch in last month was the snazzy SpaceX/ ‘Starman’ suit. Like the capsule, they are very futuristic, with 3D printed helmets and touchscreen-sensitive gloves, completely different front the bulky shuttle suits used the last time crew was launched from America! The capsule works as a complete system, with the suit plugging into the seat, which provides air and communication. It was a suit designed to inspire the next generation of spaceflight, and the look was initially created by Hollywood designer Jose Fernandez, who has been a part of Marvel and DC films.

SpaceX Dragon Launch and Entry Suits | National Air and Space Museum

Boeing also has their own suit for their Starliner capsule (set to launch late this year/early 2021), which is a lovely blue colour. 

This is the bright blue Boeing spacesuit astronauts will wear en ...

Which suit is your favourite? Let me know down in the comments! If you want more posts on the history of spaceflight, make sure to like this post!


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