The technologies we rely on to make space exploration possible are constantly evolving. One of the most important, though easily overlooked, technologies necessary for space exploration is the humble spacesuit. The spacesuit is the cornerstone of human survival in space, allowing fragile humans to brave the harsh, unforgiving elements and challenges presented while in space.
Without specialized suits to keep astronauts safe, events like the Moon landing and the first space walk would not have been possible. Just like with spacecraft, spacesuits have been evolving, becoming more effective at protecting astronauts, while offering a wide range of new features that rival some of your favorite science fiction films. Beyond scientific missions, there is a good chance that the spacesuits developed today will lay the foundation for suits worn by space tourists tomorrow.
Here's a quick look at how far we've come from the earliest precursors to spacesuits, to the exciting new developments of today.
Early pressure suits
As flight developed, aviators found they had to develop pressure suits to provide oxygen when the air became too thin. The first pressure suit was patented in 1918 by Fred M. Sample. It was made from an elastic material and included an airtight bodysuit, a helmet that could be easily opened and closed, and a flexible air-supply hose connected to a source of compressed air and a pump.
In 1934, aviator Wiley Post, the first man to fly solo around the world, had rubber manufacturer B.F. Goodrich create a rubber pressure suit which enabled him to reach 40,000 feet (12.1 km). A later version was made from latex poured over cotton clothing and had a metal helmet with a glass visor. Engineer Russell Colley later developed the XH-5 “Tomato Worm Suit” model, which had segmented joints at the knees, hips, and elbows (it resembled the body of the tomato hornworm, hence the name).
The Litton Mark I: One of the first spacesuits
While working for Litton Industries in the early 1950s, Dr. Siegfried Hansen unknowingly laid the groundwork for future generations of spacesuits. Hansen created the Mark I, a suit designed to be worn in a vacuum. The Mark I might seem primitive by today's standards, but it was the first suit to allow its wearer to breathe in a vacuum while still offering a good deal of mobility.
Later, researchers who were working on sending the first humans to space recognized the usefulness of the suit. Today, the Mark I is widely considered as the first extravehicular activity suit.
The Mercury Suit: The first American spacesuit
Developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company in the late 1950s, the Mercury Suit (also known as the Navy Mark IV) was a modified pressure suit, based on designs used by the United States Navy. The suits were originally designed by Russell Colley for use during the Korean War. NASA's Mercury Project kicked into gear in 1958, and the need for a spacesuit to protect astronauts quickly became apparent.
NASA scientists noted Mark IV as a potential model, given its ability to protect pilots at high altitudes and maintain an atmosphere similar to that of Earth's. To make the design viable for space, they coated the suit with aluminum for thermal control and added a closed-loop breathing system that pumped oxygen into the suit through a tube at the waist.
The SK-1: The first spacesuit used in space
The Russian-made SK-1 has the distinct honor of being the suit worn by the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. In fact, the breakthrough suit was designed especially with Gagarin in mind. The suit was in use from 1961 until 1963 and was worn by cosmonauts on other Vostock missions.
As the Vostock had no soft landing system, the suit was designed with an ejection function that would allow cosmonauts to safely eject themselves from the craft before landing. It allowed ejections of up to 26,000 feet (8 km) and came equipped with a life support system.
The Gemini Space Suits: Developing suits for different uses
In the early days of spacesuit development, it gradually became apparent that different suits were needed for different environments and use. The Gemini series of spacesuits, built throughout the mid-1960s, sought to address these differences by creating specialized suits for different eventualities. These included the G3C, which was created for intra-vehicle use and was worn on the Gemini 3.
Another Gemini suit was the G4C, which could be used as both an intra-vehicle and extra-vehicle suit, and was worn during the first American spacewalk in 1965. The Gemini suits would later be modified for the Apollo missions.
The Apollo/Skylab A7L: The suit that landed on the moon
To make the dream of walking on the Moon a reality, NASA had to create a suit that not only kept their astronauts alive in the vacuum of space but would also be lightweight while providing the flexibility and maneuverability needed for walking on the Moon. The design would have to protect its wearer from the effects of radiation, as well as protect the wearer against the tough terrain, and provide the ability to stoop down and collect rocks.
With these concerns in mind, NASA developed what they referred to as EMUs — extravehicular mobility units, which has become colloquially known as the Apollo or Skylab suit.
The suit featured the famous fishbowl helmet and a water-cooled undergarment that was fitted with 300 feet (91 meters) of tubing. An additional "backpack" containing oxygen and cooling water was also worn for walking on the moon's surface.
The Berkut: It was worn during the first-ever spacewalk
Modified from an SK-1 suit, the Berkut was an extravehicular activity (EVA) suit worn by Alexy Leonov during the first space walk. The suit contained enough oxygen for 45 minutes of activity and was only used during the Voskhod 2 mission, partly due to its poor mobility.
The spacewalk itself revealed weaknesses in the suit's design that would later help the Soviets to improve their technology. For starters, Leonov's body temperature rose dramatically during the spacewalk, putting him in danger of having a heatstroke.
The stiffness of the suit also made Leonov's re-entry of the Voskhod 2 a difficult and complicated affair, and the structural integrity of the suit was compromised. Luckily, Leonov kept his cool and returned to the safety of the ship, but the first space walk nearly had a very different ending.
The Shenzhou IVA: Worn On the First Manned Chinese Space Flight
The suits worn on the first manned space flight from China were reverse-engineered from Russian SK-1 suits. Russia sold the suits to China in 1992, where they were taken apart and rebuilt for the Shenzhou program.
As an intra-vehicle suit, the Shenzhou suit has no temperature or pressure controls. It was worn for the duration of the day-long Shenzhou 5 mission, which launched in October 2003 and saw Yang Liwei become the first Chinese person in space.
The Sokol: Worn From 1973 to Today
The Sokol is a strictly intra-vehicle activity (IVA) suit, worn in case of depressurization aboard Russian spacecraft. It was created in response to the deaths of the crew aboard Soyuz 11 in 1971, who died from depressurization during re-entry. First developed in 1973, the suits are still worn on some missions today.
The improvements made to the Sokol include an open-circuit life-support system, and a pressure relief valve which regulates the suit's internal pressure. The suit is a modification of an aviation suit, as opposed to a pre-existing spacesuit. Once suited, the wearer can survive for up to 30 hours in a pressurized cabin and up to 2 hours in an unpressurized atmosphere.
The Extravehicular Mobility Unit: Used Aboard the International Space Station
NASA's Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) was first introduced in 1981 and is still used today aboard the ISS. The suit can supports wearers outside the craft for up to 7 hours and is made up of 14 separate layers.
The first layers include a cooling undergarment which, like earlier models, uses a liquid coolant to protect the astronaut from over-heating. It also includes a garment which maintains air pressure inside the suit and a thermal micrometeoroid garment to protect the wearer from radiation and small pieces of space debris.
The Orlan: From Soviet Space Stations to the ISS
Developed in the late 1970s, the Orlan has been worn aboard the Soviet space station, Salyut 6, and is today still used aboard the ISS. In 2003, an Orlan named suit named SuitSat-1, was fitted with a radio transmitter and launched into orbit, effectively becoming the first spacesuit satellite.
Though the SuitSat-1's mission was a short-lived one, lasting just two orbits before its batteries died and transmissions ceased, it was fitted with a CD of art collected from across the globe. In 2006 the suit burned up in the Earth's atmosphere, just above the Southern Ocean.
The Feitian: China's First Indigenous Spacesuit
The suit took four years to develop and is modeled on Russia's Orlan suit. Like the Orlan, it can support extravehicular activities of up to 7 hours. Its name directly translates as "flying in the sky," and also the name of a Buddhist goddess.
The Final Frontier Design IVA Space Suit: A Suit Built by a Start-Up
Founded in 2010 by artist Ted Southern, Final Frontier Design caught the public's attention as a start-up dedicated to designing and creating cutting-edge spacesuits. Usually the domain of government-funded scientists, Final Frontier Design showed the world that with the right know-how, anybody could enter the business of spacesuit design.
Southern and his co-founder, engineer Nikolay Moiseev, won second place in a NASA competition in 2009, which inspired them to establish their own space technology start-up.
In 2014, they received a Space Act Agreement from NASA and at present, they're working on their fourth-generation spacesuit. This could mean that, in the near future, astronauts could be wearing suits designed by engineers working outside the traditional confines of the space industry.
The sleek and smart SpaceX spacesuit
In 2018, SpaceX launched their "Starman" - a mannequin wearing the company's spacesuit, sitting behind the wheel of a Tesla roadster. It was a compelling image that garnered lots of attention, memes, and hype around SpaceX. Elon Musk is a great showman, but does the spacesuit actually work?
Dubbed the Starman, these suits were actually designed by Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez, who has worked on costumes for films including Batman versus Superman, The Fantastic Four, and The Avengers. Customized to the wearer, the Starman space suits feature a 3D printed helmet, touchscreen-sensitive gloves, and a few other smart features.
Elon Musk has assured the press that the suit has been demonstrated to be safe to wear in vacuum chambers. However, the sleek design is intended for intra-vehicle activities only, specifically for use within the Dragon — SpaceX's transport capsule for ferrying passengers and cargo to the ISS. The suits were recently worn on the Demo-2 mission. We wonder how the Starman is doing.
The Z Series: NASA's new generation of suits
Though it might look like something Buzz Lightyear would wear, the Z-series suits are actually part of a new generation of suits created by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems program. The Z-2 is designed for use on other planets, while its precursor, the Z-1, was a softer-bodied suit trialed on the ISS last year. NASA hopes the Z-2 will be used on the first manned Mars landings, and have designed the suit to be as lightweight and mobile as possible to aid in the collection of data.
The Aouda.X: Preparing for a Mars landing
Another set of innovators with their sights set on the red planet are the members of the Austrian Space Forum. They've created the Aouda.X — a spacesuit simulator that can prepare astronauts for exploring the surface of other planets.
The helmet has a head-up display, and the suit includes sensors and software that can interact with pre-existing tech on Mars, like rovers. Though the suit in its current form is not suitable for use in space or on other planets, it allows astronauts to get a feel for what they can expect on foreign surfaces.
The comfortable Boeing Blue spacesuit
Designed for astronauts traveling to and from low-Earth orbit destinations, like the International Space Station, the "Boeing Blue" is Boeing's iteration of a future spacesuit. Unveiled in 2017, this spacesuit offers wearers greater pressurized mobility and is about 40 percent lighter than previous suits worn by astronauts. Comfort is the name of the game for the suit. The suit is intended to be worn by passengers of Boeing's future CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. It will contain internal layers to keep astronauts cool. The Boeing Blue will also include touchscreen-sensitive gloves so that astronauts can work with tablets in the spacecraft, similar to the Starman suits.
NASA and The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit
In 2019 NASA gave people a look at their next generation of suits, designed for the Artemis program. The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit or xEMU for short will play an important role in future trips to the Moon, slated from 2024. Bulkier than the pressure suits worn inside the spacecraft, the spacesuit protects the wearer from extreme temperatures on the Moon as well as from space debris and micrometeorites. The suits will also offer astronauts more mobility than traditional spacesuits while they are conducting research on the lunar surface.
SmartSuit: An intelligent and mobile EVA Spacesuit for the next generation exploration missions
NASA is funding a project that could create the next generation of spacesuits. Part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program, the suit could be worn by astronauts who travel to planets like Mars, and possibly beyond. This Texas A&M Engineering EVA concept spacesuit features stretchable self-healing skin and can provide visual feedback to the wearer, identifying potential damage, threats, or issues with the suit. NASA is funding some out of this world projects.