7 Interesting Facts about Soviet-Russian Spacesuits
As most people are aware, America was not the only nation to have ever had a space program. In fact, the former Soviet Union was the first to put a human being into space.
Apart from the highly sophisticated technology needed to get humans into space, the cosmonauts also need to be kept alive (ideally) once up there. Here are some interesting facts about the suits Russia's brave cosmonauts' donned to survive the rigors of space.
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Where did the word cosmonaut come from?
According to sites like Russiapedia, the word comonaut, which was used for Soviet and Russian 'astronauts' had its origins in Greek:
"Cosmonaut is the term used in Russia and the former Soviet Union; in the U.S., the UK and most English-speaking countries astronaut is the common term and in China - taikonauts. The word cosmonaut derives from the Greek 'kosmos' – meaning 'universe' and “nautes” – meaning 'sailor.'"
What is the difference between astronauts and cosmonauts?
Basically nothing. They are merely different terms for specialists who happen to have been trained in different parts of the world.In this sense, the terms are simply geographically specific synonyms.
Both words are used in a general sense for someone who works in space, but they also have more specific meanings within different space agencies.
"Cosmonauts are people trained and certified by the Russian Space Agency to work in space. Astronauts are people trained and certified by NASA, ESA, CSA, or JAXA to work in space. ... Every cosmonaut that is awarded the title of a cosmonaut is taking on a mantle once worn by Yuri Gagarin." - Forbes.
Which country has sent the most astronauts into space?
Given the early start that the former Soviet Union and the United States of America had with space exploration, the answer probably won't surprise you. But other countries like Germany, China, Japan, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom have had their fair share of astronauts.
Of the nations who have currently made the amazing technological leap of putting human beings into space, there are some clear winners (with regards to sheer numbers).
First place, as no one will be surprised, is the United States of America. As of 2019, according to the World Atlas, they have managed to put 339 Americans into space.
That accounts for around 61% of the humanity's total haul of space explorers. In second place, again, a fact that won't surprise anyone is Russia and the Former Soviet Union, with a total of around 117 cosmonauts.
Next up is Japan with 12, quickly followed by Germany and China in joint 4th with 11 apiece.
In a close fifth place comes France with a total of 10 astronauts.
7 interesting facts about Soviet-Russian spacesuits
Below we will look at some of the most interesting facts about Soviet-Russian spacesuits.
1. The Soviet-Russian spacesuits were an evolution of high-altitude pilot suits
As high altitude pilots experience similar environmental conditions to cosmonauts, some of the issues with keeping a human alive in space had, more or less, already been solved. In fact, early Soviet-era spacesuits were effectively a beefed-up version of existing technology at the time.
For example, one major issue at high altitude is a lack of sufficient air pressure. The developers of high-altitude pilot suits solved this problem by finding a way of pressurizing the suit.
Without pressurization, the human wearers would quickly be unable to breathe effectively (among other serious potential problems). In this sense, both high-altitude pilot suits and spacesuits are a bit like wearable car tires (albeit highly sophisticated ones).
2. Russian-Soviet spacesuits had to resist the extreme temperatures of space
Astronauts face potential extremes of temperature. When facing away from the Sun, space is extremely cold, but when facing towards the Sun, temperatures can rise rapidly.
For example, the temperature around the International Space Station ranges from around 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 Degrees Celsius) to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit (-157 degrees Celsius), depending on whether it is facing towards of away from the Sun.
Of course, regular clothing would not be able to provide enough protection for the wearer.
To overcome this problem, spacesuits were designed to be multilayered, in order to help prevent heat from dissipating into space.
Soviet spacesuits were akin to a Thermos flask invented by James Dewar in the 19th-Century. By including heat reflective materials, separated by a vacuum, heat can be kept inside the suit, rather than radiating out into space.
3. For a time during the Soviet space program, spacesuits were considered excessive
So well-engineered were the Soviet spacesuits that there was a brief window of time when they were considered unnecessary for space missions, according to some sources. This seems counterintuitive, but there was a cold logic to the decision.
"After the first six successful Vostok spaceship flights, it [was] decided that space suits [should be removed] from further missions as they just take [up] space and precious weight [within] the ship. Then after three Soviet cosmonauts died in 1971 during depressurization of the ship it [was] decided [to resupply] space suits to cosmonauts." - English Russia.
However, it should be pointed out that there are other theories as to why these cosmonauts were lost.
4. Each Russian-Soviet spacesuit was made to order
Each Russian-Soviet spacesuit, especially Sokol spacesuits, were made to order. This is because each suit needed to be tailored to the stature of each and every individual cosmonaut.
The main reason for this was once the cosmonaut returned to Earth, the suit needed to fit them snuggly so that it could absorb the impact when the landing module touched down.
Any gaps between the spacesuit and the cosmonaut's seat could potentially result in a very hard impact on landing. This could potentially lead to injuries to the cosmonaut and damage the suit.
A nice snug fit meant that the chair could take the full brunt of the landing, safely protecting the suit and cosmonaut.
5. Cosmonaut spacesuit visors were actually coated in 24K gold
One of the most striking features of Soviet-Russian spacesuits is their oddly colored visors. Not only that, but they appear to be comically oversized and bulbous, but why?
The main reason for the shape is the fact that spacesuits' helmets are not able to independently turn once fixed to the main suit body. To compensate for this, the helmets visors were specially designed to be oversized, to maximize cosmonauts' field of view when in space.
The golden coloration of the visors is basically because they are, in fact, partly made of gold. When some of the first Soviet cosmonauts ventured outside the protection of their spacecraft, they found that the Sun's heat was practically unbearable on their faces.
To overcome this, Russian spacesuit designers experimented with ways of filtering out excessive levels of visible and UV light. They found that 24K gold was the perfect material for the task.
6. Each Russian spacesuit's visor is actually bulletproof
Although you might assume that the spacesuits' visors are made of glass, this couldn't be further from the truth. They are, in fact, made from a form of polycarbonate plastic material that is practically unbreakable.
In fact, it is the same material used as bulletproof plexiglass on modernRussian attack helicopter cockpits.
7. Each suit costs a small fortune
As we have already seen, Soviet-Russian spacesuits are very complex pieces of engineering. For this reason, they are not cheap to manufacture.
Actual costs are hard to find, but equivalent modern American spacesuits can cost on the order of $250,000,000 apiece. It is likely that modern Russian spacesuits, like the Orlan model, cost an equivalent amount.