The Evolution of the Space Suit

When Fashion Is a Matter of Life or Death

4 min read
Photo of a collection of spacesuits
Photo: Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum By Amanda Young, Published by Powerhouse Books

IEEE Spectrum brings you an update of a slide show from our 2009 special report, “Why Mars? Why Now?” to include NASA’s current research on the Z-2 space suit. The suits profiled here span more than 50 years of development. In some ways, basic space-suit technology hasn’t changed very much: Astronauts still wear anthropomorphic, gas-filled pressure vessels, and engineers are still working on ways to boost mobility without compromising safety.

  1. img Photo: Kennedy Space Center/NASA


    The original Mercury Seven astronauts pose in their silver suits. “Space suits are very special because they keep the astronauts alive in the most inhospitable of situations,” says Amanda Young, the author of a 2009 book about space suits and the curator of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum space suit collection, in Washington, D.C.


    img Photo: Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum By Amanda Young, Published by Powerhouse Books

    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.


    /img/06sspacesuitf3-1443204084004.jpg Photos: Left, NASA; Right, Marshall Space Flight Center/NASA

    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.


    /img/06sspacesuitf4-1443204120413.jpg Photo: NASA

    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.

  5. /img/06sspacesuitf5-1443204342237.jpg Photo: Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum By Amanda Young, Published by Powerhouse Books


    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.


    img Photo: Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum By Amanda Young, Published by Powerhouse Books

    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”.

  7. img Photo: NASA


    By the time Buzz Aldrin [right] 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.


    img Photo: Johnson Space Center/NASA

    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.

  9. /img/06sspacesuitf9-1443207056515.jpg Photo: NASA


    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.

  10. /img/06sspacesuitf10-1443207130387.jpg Photo: Johnson Space Center/NASA


    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 are assembled from individual components that can fit different astronauts.


    /img/06sspacesuitf12-1443624464103.jpg Photos: University of North Dakota

    The latest space-suit prototypes emphasize mobility. One recent example is this potential Mars exploration model, developed by space-suit researcher Pablo de Leon, of the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks. The tan-and-black “restraint layer” allows more flexibility, says de Leon. The blue cover layer protects astronauts against the cold and dust.


    /img/f13DavaNewman4259374769-1443207571551.jpg Photo: John Minchillo/PromaxBDA/Corbis

    MIT professor Dava Newman [above, right] 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.)


    /img/f14Z2spacesuitNASA-1443207555435.jpg Illustration: NASA

    NASA is also working on a space-suit reboot. The Z-2 is designed with planetary exploration in mind. Improved bearings and joints allow an astronaut to walk more comfortably. And the suit is designed to operate at a higher pressure than those currently used on the International Space Station, which will allow future Mars explorers to suit up without having to go through a lengthy depressurization procedure. 

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