Space Science: The history of spacesuits

By Death Wish Coffee — / Death Wish Coffee Blog

Going through the history of spacesuits on Fueled by Death Cast

By Angela Garrity, Guest blogger

In this episode of Fueled By Death Cast, the Incredible Jeff takes us on a journey through time and space as we take a look into the idea of traveling beyond Earth. For this voyage, please direct your focus to the stars, as we tour the trends of spacesuits throughout the ages.

A photo of a NASA astronaut working on the International Space Station in Space

This science segment is part of a four-part series about the history and science of humans in space. 

In 1898, Garrett P. Serviss’ novel, Edison’s Conquest of Mars, gave us the earliest examples of the spacesuit in fiction. This trend continued in the 1930s with the Buck Rogers comic book series. However, spacesuits are so much more than what meets the eye, Earthling.

Spacesuits are actually a one-person spaceship. They are designed to keep the wearer safe, comfortable, and alive in the vacuum of space.

The spacesuit has undergone a lot of changes throughout the years as science and technology improves. We are on the cusp of brand-new space exploration, which will usher in new and improved spacesuits, once again.

NASA has a long history with spacesuits that started with pressure suits needed for pilots in high altitude aircraft.

In 1946, the U.S. military developed the Henry suit, deemed the S1 suit by the Air Force. This was a partial pressure suit – skintight and meant to put pressure directly on the body in case of decompression at dangerously high altitudes.

Full pressure suits are basically a loosely fitted bag shaped like a human with rings at the wrist and neck to attach the gloves and helmet. When space exploration was nearing the point it would become a reality, NASA needed to redesign the full pressure suits to astronaut suits, called extravehicular activity (EVA).

There are three types of spacesuits – EVA, intravehicular activity (IVA), and IEVA, which is a combination of both EVA and IVA.

A photo of an astronaut standing on the surface of the moon in a white spacesuit

To be considered a spacesuit, many requirements have to be met to ensure the utmost safety and usability. The most important is a stable internal pressure, which can be considerably less than it is on Earth because there is no need to account for nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up 70 percent of Earth’s atmosphere but is not used by the body. Lower pressure allows for greater mobility but increases the risk of decompression sickness.

Other main requirements of a spacesuit include mobility, oxygen supply, temperature regulation, communication systems, and solid and liquid body collection systems.

Predominantly regarding the extravehicular mobility unit suit (EMU), there are requirements that allow humans to live outside of a space station when wearing an EMU.

Oxygen supply is provided to the astronaut by a spacecraft via umbilical cord style attachment or through a backpack life support system, that the astronaut wears.

Exhaled carbon dioxide needs to be removed from the spacesuit’s atmosphere. Most spacesuits are equipped with lithium hydroxide canisters.

The backpack or primary life support subsystem (PLSS) contains many things astronauts need to survive in space including primary O2 tanks and regulators, H2O tanks, battery, fan and motor assembly, antenna, extravehicular communications and caution, and warning systems. 

The layers of the spacesuit are very important to help with temperature regulation and protection against micrometeoroids and solar flares. Spacesuits are made up of many layers.

The arm of the spacesuit has over 14 layers of material to protect the spacewalker. The liquid cooling and ventilation garment make up the first three layers. On top of this, is the bladder layer. It creates the proper pressure for the body and holds oxygen for breathing. The next layer holds the bladder layer to the correct shape around the astronaut’s body and is made of the same material as camping tents.

The ripstop liner is the tear-resistant layer. The next seven layers are mylar insulation and make the suit act like a thermos. The layers keep the temperature from changing inside and protect the spacewalker from being harmed by small, high-speed objects flying through space.

The outer layer is made up of a blend of three fabrics: one is waterproof, one is used to make bulletproof vests and the third is fire-resistant.

One of the most asked questions astronauts get is “How do astronauts use the restroom in space?” In an EVA spacesuit, astronauts wear a maximum absorption garment (MAG), which is basically a large adult diaper.

The communication system is twofold. The communications carrier assembly is also known as a Snoopy cap and houses the headphones and mic for the astronaut to remain in contact. The display and control module is mounted on the front of the spacesuit and allows the astronaut to communicate with the suit itself and control the PLSS. The EVA spacesuit also includes a wrist-mounted checklist and a mirror to aid mobility and visibility.

Mobility is the biggest thing that has plagued the spacesuits since their early days. You need to minimize the effort needed to bend the limbs, resisting a soft pressure garment’s natural tendency to stiffen against the vacuum.

Three astronauts stand next to each other in the International Space Station in full spacesuits

Moving within an inflated spacesuit is very tough. Imagine trying to move your fingers in a rubber glove blown up with air. To help this problem, spacesuits are equipped with special joints or tapers in the fabric to help the astronauts bend their hands, arms, legs, knees, and ankles.

Most spacesuits are sized poorly with some interchangeable parts, such as longer or shorter leg parts, do not help aid in the comfortability of the astronaut. There have been multiple instances of joint pain and back pain by astronauts having to live and work in these suits because they are not entirely fit to their frames.

Some of the most notable spacesuits throughout history include SK1, SK2, Berkut, Sokol, Orlak SK, Mercury, Apollo Skylab A7L EVA.

Everything changes with the Artemis program and the release of new spacesuits. The Orion suits are designed for a custom fit and engrained with safety technology and mobility features. The exploration extravehicular mobility unit (xEMU) allows astronauts to maneuver and accomplish much more thanks to technological advances made since the Apollo mission. SpaceX, Boeing, and others are developing new spacesuits with the latest in technology to aid the astronauts in comfort, mobility, and safety.

Spacesuits are an astronaut’s personally fashioned individual spacecraft that’s been developed over generations of advancements, with imagination that stretches beyond the stars. 

Tune into Fueled by Death Cast weekly to see more of this four-part series about the science of humans in space. Catch the episodes on the Death Wish Coffee YouTube channel.

Related: Death Wish Coffee sent to the International Space Station



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