One Giant Leap: The History of Spacesuits | History Hit

One Giant Leap: The History of Spacesuits

Space suits being used to work on the International Space Station
Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Space, the final frontier, is of course deadly to humans without a spacesuit. Spacesuits must perform a range of functions, such as guarding against loss of cabin pressure, allowing astronauts to float outside a spacecraft, keeping the wearer warm and oxygenated and working against the harsh pressures of the vacuum. Any design flaw or error can easily prove fatal, so the development of the spacesuit remains an intrinsic part of humanity’s desire to explore the universe.

It has already been over 60 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first person to travel into space in 1961. Since then, spacesuit technology has rapidly improved. Where spacesuits used to be overheated, cumbersome and tiring, they are now much more efficient, comfortable and durable. Looking to the future, spacesuits will be adapted for astronauts to travel to planets such as Mars, and even more remarkably will even be used for commercial spaceflights.

Here’s a breakdown of the history of the spacesuit.

They were initially based upon aeroplane pilot suits

The first American human spaceflight program, known as Project Mercury, took place between 1958 and 1963. The spacesuits developed for this were based upon the pressure suits of aeroplane pilots from the US Navy, which NASA then adapted to protect the very first astronauts from the effects of sudden pressure loss.

John Glenn wearing his Mercury space suit

Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Each spacesuit featured a layer of neoprene-coated nylon on the inside and aluminised nylon on the outside, which kept the suit’s inner temperature as stable as possible. Six astronauts flew into space wearing the suit before it was retired from usage by NASA.

Project Gemini suits attempted to implement air conditioning

Project Gemini saw 10 Americans fly in low Earth orbit between 1965 and 1966, and crucially, they conducted the first spacewalks. Astronauts reported that they found it difficult to move in the Mercury spacesuit when it was pressurised, meaning that the Gemini suit had to be made more flexible.

The suits were also connected to a portable air conditioner to keep the astronauts cool until they could hook themselves up to the spacecraft’s lines. There was also up to 30 minutes of backup life support included in some of the suits in case of emergency.

However, the Gemini suits still presented many problems. Astronauts discovered that extravehicular activities quickly caused the body’s temperature to rise, resulting in severe exhaustion. The inside of the helmet also fogged up due to excessive moisture, and the suit couldn’t be effectively cooled just by providing air from the spacecraft. Finally, the suits were heavy, weighing 16-34 pounds.

The Apollo programme had to make suits adapted for walking on the moon

Mercury and Gemini space suits weren’t equipped to complete the aim of the Apollo mission: to walk on the moon. The suits were updated to allow more free movement on the lunar surface, and suitable boots were made for the texture of the rocky ground. Rubber fingertips were added, and portable life support backpacks were developed to hold water, air and batteries. Moreover, the spacesuits weren’t air-cooled but rather used nylon underwear and water to cool the astronauts’ bodies, much like the system used to cool a car engine.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the deployed United States flag on the lunar surface

Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Protection was also created against fine regolith (dust as sharp as glass), protection from extreme temperature swings and better flexibility. They were also designed to last hours away from the spacecraft; however, astronauts still couldn’t move far away because they were connected by a hose to it.

Free floating suits were propelled by jetpack

In 1984, astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first astronaut to float in space untethered, thanks to a jetpack-like device called the Manned Manoeuvring Unit (MMU). Though this is no longer used, an evolved version is used by astronauts who spend time in space maintaining the space station.

Creating a successful spacesuit was one of the biggest challenges in man's quest to land on the moon.
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Parachutes were installed after the challenger disaster

Since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has used an orange suit that includes a parachute which allows the crew to escape from the spacecraft in an emergency.

This orange suit, nicknamed the ‘pumpkin suit’, includes the launch and entry helmet with communications gear, parachute pack and harness, life preserver unit, life raft, oxygen manifold and valves, boots, survival gear and parachute pack. It weighs about 43kg.

Many spacesuits used today are Russian-designed

Today, the sharp, blue-lined spacesuit many astronauts wear is a Russian suit called the Sokol, or ‘Falcon’. Weighing in at 22 pounds, the suit is fairly similar to the space shuttle flight suit, though it’s mainly used to protect people who fly inside Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA pays to use for its own astronauts’ travel to and from the space station.

The crew of Expedition 7, Commander Yuri Malenchenko (front) and Ed Lu are both wearing Sokol KV2 pressure suits

Image Credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Future spacesuits will allow astronauts to explore places like Mars

NASA aims to send people to places that humans have never yet explored, such as an asteroid, or even Mars. Spacesuits will have to be adapted to facilitate these purposes such as better protecting astronauts from yet more abrasive dust. New suits will also contain parts that can be swapped out.

Lucy Davidson