THE SILVER SEVEN: The original Mercury Seven astronauts pose in their silver suits in 1968. “Space suits are very special because they keep the astronauts alive in the most inhospitable of situations,” says Amanda Young, the author of an upcoming book and the curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum space suit collection, in Washington, D.C.
UNDER PRESSURE: Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, undergoes a pressure test on his suit. In the last 50 years, the space suit has gone through structural transformations to help it keep pace with changing mission requirements. The space suits that will eventually enable humans to walk on Mars will be a far cry from those the Mercury crew wore.
Photo:Photos: Left, NASA/AP Photo; Right, Marshall Space Flight Center/NASA
MAN’S BEST FRIENDS: The Soviet Union and the United States sent animals to space to test the safety of space travel before sending humans. Laika the dog blasted off in a Soviet craft in 1957, and Ham the astrochimp made a round-trip journey to space about three months before Alan Shepard’s flight in 1961. Neither animal wore a proper space suit. Instead, they were placed inside small, pressurized capsules.
JUST A TEST: During Project Gemini (1965–1966), researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Va., tested how well astronauts could move inside airlock capsules. A space suit must endure rigorous tests to ensure that the astronaut wearing it is not only safe but can also perform mission duties.
FLOATING POINT: After Mercury, researchers needed to develop a space suit that would allow astronauts to leave the safety of their spacecraft. The Gemini suits added 10 layers of insulation and hoses that pumped cooling air from the spacecraft. This system kept the astronaut’s body at a comfortable temperature, but the tethers kept them from venturing far from the capsule.
SPACE SAMPLES: Each suit goes through many iterations until NASA deems it spaceworthy. These two suits [left, from 1963; right, from 1964], housed at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., were early prototypes of those that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong eventually wore when they took their famous “small steps".
WALKABOUT: By the time Buzz Aldrin [above] stepped out of Apollo 11 and onto the lunar surface, the old Gemini air-cooling system had been replaced by long johns with built-in cool-water hoses. The new liquid-cooling system gave the astronaut freedom to walk around. Another addition: a self-contained life-support system that the astronauts carried on their backs. This system provided water and oxygen, among other things.
Photo: Johnson Space Center/NASA
MOON BUGGY: Despite the bulkiness of the life-support systems, the Apollo suits were comfortable enough to allow astronauts like Apollo 15 commander David R. Scott [above] to sit down and drive lunar rovers.
SUITED FOR SOYUZ: Russian cosmonauts have worn versions of their Sokol space suit since the 1970s. The suit was first developed after Soyuz 11 lost pressure upon reentry to Earth in 1971, killing its crew. The Sokol is worn only during launch and reentry. NASA uses a similar suit for the same purpose.
Photo: Johnson Space Center/NASA
FASHION UPDATE: An astronaut is supported by an electrical arm outside the space shuttle Endeavor in 1993. Unlike the Apollo suits, which were a single piece tailored to each astronaut, today’s extravehicular mobility units (EMU)—are assembled from individual components that can fit different astronauts.
READY TO WEAR: As part of its Constellation program to send astronauts back to the moon and then to Mars, NASA hopes to debut an all-purpose spacesuit. Wearing it, astronauts will be able to go from launch to extended lunar stays simply by switching the components and layers of the modular suit. Configuration One [left] lacks a life-support system and will be used only inside or near the spacecraft. Configuration Two [right] will be worn during surface exploration missions.
Photo:Photos: University of North Dakota (2)
RESEARCH IN MOTION: The latest space suit prototypes emphasize mobility. Space suit researcher Pablo de Leon, of the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, is developing a suit for Mars exploration. The tan and black “restraint layer” allows more flexibility, says de Leon. Blue overalls protect astronauts against the cold and dust.
Photo: Joshua Dalsimer
ACTION WEAR: MIT professor Dava Newman [above] proposes an extreme makeover of the old suits. In her BioSuit, she ditches the gas pressurization system for mechanical counterpressure, created by wrapping layer upon layer of flexible material around the body. The result is a skintight design that would make any superhero jealous. (Super powers not included.)