These suits are out of this world: an exploration of the spacesuit

by Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

The clothes we wear have both form and function. Real spacesuits are no different.  Like a second skin they must provide a protective barrier for the astronaut.  At the same time they are a product of the 20th century.  A century replete in media opportunities and national symbolism.

What we imagine

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The right stuff.  Where the astronauts and public see that it all began.  The experimental record breaking pilots and planes of the post Korean War US X-series.  This 1960 image is of the most famous of all astronauts, Neil Armstrong first human on the Moon. Here, as an X-15 pilot, Neil is wearing a Navy Mark IV high altitude/vacuum suit.

Public and pilots are one thing.  Scientists, well they may see the race with a different beginning.  The first ‘nauts’ were frankly a bunch of animals.

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As such they did not go in for suits.  Not much in the way of protection at all.  Laika, the first cosmodog (or dogonaut?), the occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3, 1957.  The first Earth animal to reach space.  She had a flight harness, oxygen and water supply for her scheduled six day flight.  Laika did not survive her journey, dying hours after launch from overheating.

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Ham, the astro-chimp, fared somewhat better, making a live return to Earth.  Ham’s capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by a rescue ship later that day.    He only suffered a bruised nose.   Perhaps it was the NASA helmet?  A prudent use of tax-payer money.  Congress of today may have approved.

Ham had his vital signs and tasks monitored using computers on.    The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham’s biopack couch space suit prevented him from suffering any harmHam’s lever-pushing performance in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating that tasks could be performed in space

The for space ‘firsts’

The first suit into space was worn by the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin wore this SK-1 suit in his history making flight on board Vostok 1 on April 12 1961.

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The pressurised rather baggy, looking suit weighs 20kg and is modeled on the Russian flight suits of the time.  The primary life support is provided by the capsule.  The suit is designed for low pressure/vacuum intra-vehicular activity and ejection.  Not surprising given that Gagarin parachutes from 7000m on re-entry.  The sphere shaped command capsule separately parachutes, empty, to Earth.

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Similarly the US suits of the NASA Mercury program were modified Navy Mark IV flight suit.  They provided pressure support to ensure adequate blood circulation whilst in flight.  Oxygen and radio contact were the other necessities for these very sedentary flights.

When NASA began the Mercury Project in 1958, one of the first needs was a pressure suit to protect the astronaut in the event of a sudden depressurization of the cabin in the vacuum of space.

The Mark IV suit had solved the mobility problems with the use of elastic cord which arrested the “ballooning” of the suit, and at 10kg, was the lightest pressure suit developed for military use.

The Mercury suit incorporated several changes from the Navy Mark IV:

  • Replacement of the “open loop” breathing system with a “closed loop” system, eliminating the rubber diaphragm around the wearer’s face. Oxygen entered the suit through a hose connected at the wearer’s waist, circulated through the suit to provide cooling, and exited through a hose on the right side of the helmet, or through the face opening depending on whether the faceplate was closed or open. A small pressure bottle connected by a small hose to a connector next to the astronaut’s left jaw was used to pressurize a pneumatic seal when the faceplate was closed.
  • Replacement of the dark gray nylon outer shell with one made of aluminum-coated nylon, for thermal control purposes
  • Replacement of the black leather safety boots with ones made first from white coated leather, later aluminumized nylon-coated leather, again for thermal control.
  • Introduction of straps and zippers to provide a snug fit, along with refinements in the shoulder, elbow, and knee retaining cords
  • Special gloves with four curved fingers for grasping the controls, with the middle finger made straight for pushing buttons and flipping toggle switches.
  • A “biomed” flap on the right thigh for the connection of biomedical connections to the spacecraft’s telemetry systems.

Each astronaut had three pressure suits: one for training, one for flight, and one for a backup. All three suits cost $20,000 USD total and unlike the military Mark IV suits, had to be individually tailored to each astronaut.

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On May 5, 1961, Shepard piloted the Freedom 7 mission and became the second person, and the first American, to travel into space.  He was launched by a Redstone rocket, and unlike Gagarin’s 108-minute orbital flight, Shepard stayed on a ballistic trajectory—a 15-minute suborbital flight which carried him to an altitude of 187 km. Unlike Gagarin, whose flight was strictly automatic, Shepard had some control of Freedom 7, spacecraft attitude in particular. The launch was seen live on television by millions.

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It might be supposed that the inclusion of women in the USSR cosmonaut program may have bought in changes.

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Alas no.  The SK-2 was the SK-1, ehhh, for women.  Valentina Tereshkova, the “Cinderella of the Stars”, became the first woman cosmonaut on June 16 1963 on board Vostok 6

Although Tereshkova experienced nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight she orbited the earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date.

Vostok 6 was the final Vostok flight and was launched two days after Vostok 5 which carried Valery Bykovsky into a similar orbit for five days, landing three hours after Tereshkova. The two vessels approached each other within 5 kilometres at one point, and Tereshkova communicated with Bykovsky and with Khrushchev by radio.

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NASA did not allow women astronauts until the 1970’s.  This is despite women pilots meeting the pre-flight criteria.  Jerry Cobb was in the top 95% of pilots who tried out for the Mercury program.

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The short expansion from the single-person Vostok and Mercury programs to the multi-person Voskhod and Gemini programs heralded many spacesuit changes and diversification.

The Gemini program was created for the purpose of teaching astronauts the techniques involved in docking, rendezvous, long-term flight and space-walks.

The first space-walk was nearly fatal.  On March 18 1965 Alexei Leonov emerged from his Voshkod spacecraft.  His Berkut suit ballooned such that he had extreme difficulty re-entering hatch of his spacecraft.

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The suit is a modified SK-1.  Life support was contained in back pack, had a large enough oxygen supply to last 45 minutes of activity. Movement within the suit was seriously restricted.  It was only used by the crew of the Voskhod 2.

Three months later on June 3 1965, Edward H White II had no such problems for his spacewalk in his G4C suit.  His space walk from Gemini 4 was played out in the full glare of world-wide audience and captured in glorious colour.

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There were three main suit variants developed for the Gemini program.  : G3C designed for intra-vehicle use; G4C specially designed for extra-vehicular activity and intra-vehicle use; and a special G5C suit worn by the Gemini 7 crew for 14 days inside the spacecraft

Walking on the Moon

The Apollo program to the Moon bought to the fore the extra functionality required for walking on the surface of another world.  The suits needed to be self supporting, more robust in case of falls, flexible so that activities could be carried out and shield the astronauts from the radiation expected on the airless surface of the Moon.

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Additional requirements for extra-vehicular activity include:

  • Shielding against ultraviolet radiation
  • Limited shielding against particle radiation
  • Means to maneuver, dock, release, and/or tether onto a spacecraft
  • Protection against small micrometeoroids, some traveling at up to 27,000 kilometres per hour, provided by a puncture-resistant Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment, which is the outermost layer of the suit. Experience has shown the greatest chance of exposure occurs near the gravitational field of a moon or planet, so these were first employed on the Apollo lunar EVA suits.

Apollo (Block I A1C suit (1966-1967) was a derivative of the Gemini suit, worn by primary and backup crews in training for two early Apollo missions. The nylon pressure garment melted and burned through in the Apollo 1 cabin fire. This suit became obsolete when manned Block I Apollo flights were discontinued after the fire.

The Block II Apollo suit (Apollo/Skylab A7L) was the primary pressure suit worn for 11 Project Apollo flights, 3 Skylab flights, and the US astronauts on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project between 1968 and 1975. The pressure garment’s nylon outer layer was replaced with fireproof Beta cloth after the Apollo 1 fire. This suit was the first to employ a liquid-cooled inner garment and outer micrometeroid garment.

The Soyuz program was first designed to match the US Apollo effort and place men on the Moon.  These saw a continual design to meet extra vehicular activities.

From Soyuz 1 to Soyuz 11 no pressure suits were worn between launch and re-entry. 

The Yastreb suit was designed to overcome the difficulties experienced by the berkut suit of Leonov.  The Yastreb design was much more rigid using a system of pulleys and lines to regulate movement. The backpack containing life support was mounted in a metal box that could be attached to the chest or to the leg to ease access through the small Soyuz hatch.

The suit was to be worn only in the Orbital module of the Soyuz spacecraft and needed two people to put it on.

The Yastreb suit was only used once, this was during the Soyuz 4 and Soyuz 5 docking and crew exchange. The suit was not worn during launch or reentry. During the mission both cosmonauts experienced problems with the suit.

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The Sokol, shown above, was introduced in 1973 and is still in use in 2012.  It is designed as a rescue suit, in case of spaceship depressurisation. 

Orlan suits are used for extra-vehicular activity.  Originally developed for the Soviet lunar program as a lunar orbit extra-vehicular activity suit. It is Russia’s current extra-vehicular activity suit. Used from 1977 to present.

International cooperation

Space suit design has since gone ahead in a series of improvements as the suits have been used for use inside the MIR, Soylut, Skylab and International Space Station.  This now included the inclusion of women in the Shuttle program.  Including the first American woman to walk in space, Kathryn Sullivan.

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She is pictured wearing anExtravehicular Mobility Unit used on both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. The extra-vehicular mobility unit is an independent anthropomorphic system that provides environmental protection, mobility, life support, and communications for a Shuttle or ISS crew member to perform extra-vehicular activity in earth orbit. Used from 1982 to present.

The shuttle program saw a big shift initially.  From STS-5 (1982) to STS-25 (1986) no pressure suits were worn during launch and re-entry. The crew would wear only a blue-flight suit with an oxygen helmet.

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After the Challenger disaster a Launch Entry Suit was used on STS-26. This partial pressure suit was used from 1988 to 1998.  It is modeled below, by the first Indian woman in space Kalpana Chawla.  She sadly was one of seven crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

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Advanced Crew Escape Suit were used on the Space Shuttle starting in 1994.  The Advanced Crew Escape Suit or ACES suit, is a full pressure suit currently worn by all Space Shuttle crews for the ascent and entry portions of flight. The suit is a direct descendant of the U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suits worn by SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy plane pilots, X-15 and Gemini pilot-astronauts and the Launch-Entry Suits worn by NASA previously worn by astronauts.

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Included in design is the need for mobility inside the space stations for a much larger variety of activities.  Such as this 1996 image of Shannon Lucid exercising on the ISS on a treadmill.

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An Orlan space suit is a series of semi-rigid one-piece space suit models.  They have been used for spacewalks in the Russian space program, the successor to the Soviet space program, and by space programs of other countries, including NASA.

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A variant of the Orlan Spacesuit, with improvements, is used by the Chinese Space Program.

Fiction, the future and experimental suits

As you can see I have come a long way.  From the early suits to the sophisticated suite of suits in the current programs.  I can hardly wait for hard shell suits, voyages to Mars, the Constellation program and space suits in fiction - an exciting story continues………

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