Spacesuits: a technology in evolution

The relationship with space colonization – together with all the ambitions of discovery – has made substantial evolutionary steps from the 1950s to today. This process involved a number of more optimizations, the most fascinating of which was the evolution of the spacesuits.

Here are the steps that the most important clothing in history has followed from 1946 to today.

The first pressure suits

The first step of the evolution of spacesuits is represented by the working partial pressure suits, developed in 1946 and used by the United States Air Force. These laid the foundation for modern spacesuits, even though they wouldn’t have been useful in space. The need for a pressure suit emerges well before leaving the earth’s soil. The pressure problems for pilots flying at high altitudes are exponential and pressure suits were immediately necessary for the safety of the crew. It was not only the intense environmental changes, but also the sudden changes in temperatures that did not allow to obtain sufficient oxygen. These suits worked via an active pressure system on the body through a tight non-breathable fabric that was activated via a blister system in case of depressurization inside the aircraft. They were intended to allow pilots to reach an altitude without losing consciousness.

spacesuits dr who
A spacesuit from the original Dr. Who

Fundamental mutations.

There have been many suits that have never seen space, but they have been fundamental elements in the evolution of those that have instead left the earth’s atmosphere. Among these were undoubtedly the USAF Mark I Extravehicular and Lunar Surface Suit, tested in 1958 by the United States Air Force. These were silver suits that allowed more movement and had shown during simulations that they could maintain good pressure.

The suit that made history.

The first real spacesuit was certainly the one worn by Gagarin in 1961 aboard the Vostok 1, in the midst of the unstoppable space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Gagarin aboard Vostok wore the SK-1 a full pressure suit designed to deal with a number of complications that could affect him. The suit included a number of survival aids including a radio headset, a helmet with visor and an inflatable collar in the event of a water landing. The suit worked while remaining in history along with Gagarin’s historic feat.

Yuri Gagarin in his Spacesuit

Mercury suit and Gemini dress

The Mercury program was the US response to the launch of Gagarin. To carry it out, NASA also had to prepare a suitable suit. To do this, he was inspired by the Navy’s aeronautical suits.

The new NASA suits were custom-made, pressure-fit, and made up of two layers. The outer layer is coated with aluminum to reflect heat and an inner layer of breathable linen.

All accessories were connected to the suit by rings, including external tubes fed to a ventilation system to give oxygen. This is the suit from which started to reach the model then more optimized for space.

The Gemini suit is the one that begins to resemble the Apollo mission suit. First of all for the white color and no longer silver. In fact, aluminum was not so essential to reject heat, a function already exercised by the aircraft. The Gemini mission involved many hours out of the vehicle, this meant more protection. Therefore this Space Suit consisted of eight layers. The outermost one, a layer for thermal protection, another to contain shocks, two layers designed for pressure management and finally two soft and breathable layers for the body and skin. Not only. In addition to the air tubes, the suits had communication technologies, back supports and additional protective visors.

Gemini Space Suit

The Moonwalk suit.

It is the turn of the suit that made the history of the evolution of spacesuit: the Apollo suit. This suit had to face both missions inside the vehicle and outside. The suit was therefore like the multi-layered Gemini with water-cooled underwear. The Apollo suit, however, was equipped with detachable and re-attachable instruments depending on whether the astronauts were inside or outside. Boots, gloves, and visors could be added later by astronauts once they arrived on the Moon.

The pumpkin-colored jumpsuit.

So nicknamed for its color, the Shuttle suit was used for the first time in 1988 by astronauts who flew aboard the space shuttle. It was gradually replaced by a full-pressure and more comfortable model. The suit had a protective function allowing it to maintain a good temperature and pressure in case of rescue at high altitudes. Astronauts with this suit had the ability to parachute to the earth’s surface were landing in water was highly probable. The suit also had an inflatable around the neck, by securing the head from the body. This allowed oxygen to fill the helmet and not the suit.

The Orlan dress

Orlan Suit

The Orlan did not have integrated or separate accessories, but it was a one-piece suit with a rigid body. Its peculiarity is that it can be entered from the back through a rear opening. There were no external pipes either. The other unmistakable element of the suit was a panel with messages emanated in reverse, through a single cord attached to the suit. It was embedded in the chest and could be read through a mirror placed on the wrist. The Orlan is still in use on the International Space Station for launch and reentry missions but is continuously updated.

The modern era: SpaceX suit and xEMU.

Although the 2020 Demo-2 mission was the one that introduced them, it wasn’t the first time these futurist suits were used. The suit had already been taken on other test missions. The sci-fi suits were designed by SpaceX and were not intended for spacewalks. They could maintain pressure in case of cabin depressurization and connected directly to the ship for the supply of oxygen and pressure.

SpaceX suits.

Artemis missions set out to take astronauts to the moon. Sooner or later. Meanwhile, for this to happen, NASA has realized the necessary update of the suit with now fifty years of the Apollo mission. The new suits are the XEMU acronym for Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit and are a recently presented prototype. They allow greater mobility and protection from the abrasive moon dust that has instead penetrated inside the suit of the Apollo mission. Like the Orlan suits, it has the rear entrance. It boasts a number of modern technologies such as high-speed communications and embedded video. In appearance it is very similar to that of the Apollo but with a major technological evolution that will certainly make the difference for any trip to the moon.

What about the Martian surface?

While waiting to be able to make the first human landing on Mars, NASA continues incessantly to prepare suitable technology for that moment. The Z series suits are among them. Lightweight and beautiful to look at, thanks to the futuristic design, they protect against radiation, and extreme temperatures and offer greater freedom of movement on the ground of another planet.

If you want to learn more about the relation between space and innovation, you can attend the free webinar on October 19, 2022, 9 pm CEST. “Space Architecture & Design” course instructors Barbara Imhof and Renè Waclavicek will talk about space architecture and how it can become a resource for life on Earth. The last few minutes will be devoted to Q&A, where you can ask the lecturers any questions you want about the topic and the course.

You can register and attend the webinar by clicking on the banner below.

To deepen the topic:

  1. High environmental impact rocket propellants
  2. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWSP), for dummies
  3. The imitation of Space. An interview with three members from analog missions.

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