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Spacesuits of the future

We delve deep into one of the most iconic symbols of space travel and it’s decidedly awesome evolution. Plus a peek into its future.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an astronaut? The Spacesuit of course! The dorky yet totally awesome fluffy white thing with a fishbowl head has become synonymous with space and space travel. They evoke feelings of awe and envy among kids (and quite a few adults) and bring about a longing to explore one of the final frontiers left for humankind as a whole. But have you really wondered about what the spacesuit actually is and what it does? And there has been a gradual but steady evolution in design, bringing both form and function.

What is a spacesuit?

A spacesuit, when you boil it down, is simply a mobile, self-contained spaceship for one person. It has to keep the person inside alive, whether they are outside in the vacuum of space or inside the spacecraft. It’s used for deploying payloads, inspecting and repairing spacecraft and satellites, retrieving satellites and even construction of space stations. It has to regulate temperature while withstanding external temperatures of -450 degrees to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, provide air as well filter out CO2, have a communications array along with various sensors, extract cough excreta, maintain stable pressure, protect the astronaut against micrometeoroids and loads of other functions. All of this is handled by various devices that are all rather seamlessly integrated into the suit itself.

NASA Spacesuit
Liquid Cooled Underwear. The future is here. Credit: Paul Calle

There are three major classifications of a spacesuit including IntraVehicular Activity or IVA, ExtraVehicular Activity or EVA and Intra/ExtraVehicular Activity or IEVA.

IVA suits are worn inside the spacecraft just for the risk of loss of cabin pressure. They are generally very comfortable to wear and relatively lightweight. EVA suits are meant for spacewalks and other outer excursions while offering maximum protection. As a result, they are the heaviest and bulkiest. IEVA suits are for situations where you will not be outside in space but aren’t in the pressurised aircraft (like when you’re repairing an airlock) and so, are a mixture of IVA and EVA.

History of the Space Suit

Spacesuit design
Sometimes, the designers went a wee bit overboard

The very first spacesuits were exclusively IVAs, as suits that could reliably stand up to the conditions outside in the vacuum of space were a bit difficult for engineers to design. This was because they had no reference to what effect things like zero gravity had on the human body. In fact, the first IVA designs for suborbital flight were merely adapted deep sea suits and high altitude suits. There were plenty of theories for spacesuit design from soft suits made from all fabric (scrapped due to not being able to hold pressure well) to all hard material suits (Mecha armor, anyone?) which was scrapped due to extremely limited mobility and dexterity. A good balance of the two had to be found, incorporating the physical support and protection of a hard suit while retaining most of the mobility of a soft suit.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space also wore the first space suit; “Skafandr Kosmicheskiy” #1 or SK-1. It was custom made for him and weighed a whopping 44 pounds, mainly accounting for the protection gear in the case of an ejection. The Russians didn’t really have a landing program per se so they designed the suit to protect Gagrin for rough falls (upto 8 km!) A month later, marking the time when the space race between the USA and the USSR started ramping up, Alan Shephard became the second man in space aboard the Mecury Redstone 3. He wore the Navy Mark IV, a suit modified by NASA from the US Navy’s pilots of High Altitude Aircraft. It weighed 22 pounds but it was still too bulky and uncomfortable to move in, and had bad temperature regulation. The first EVA suit (all the others before this were IVA suits) was the Berkut, worn by the astronauts aboard the Vokshod 2 spacecraft. It was a modified SK-1 with a ‘backpack’ containing about 45 minutes of oxygen for use on the first ever space walk. Berkut was used for only one mission since moving in it was really difficult and created a problem when the astronaut couldn’t get back into the airlock. Then technology improved rapidly and features such as liquid cooling, better insulation, fireproofing (after the disastrous Apollo-1 fire) started making their way into development. The A7L Apollo & Skylab spacesuit was the culmination of many years of developing and was claimed as a pinnacle of engineering. It was used in the first lunar landing and featured astonishingly advanced hardware for the time including a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation loop for thermal regulation, synthetic and rubber joints to allow unparalleled mobility relative to other spacesuits and the now famous “fishbowl” helmet, which allowed for nearly unobstructed vision. Development went on at a furious rate for the next years before peaking in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Suits developed during that time – Extravehicular Mobility Unit from the US and the Orlan Spacesuit from Russia are still being used today with almost no major changes to the design.

Spacesuit prototype
There are all these badass looking suits and then there is Gemini G4-C

What is it made of?

Space suits are made up of several different, distinct pieces. The helmet is made of a strengthened polycarbonate which protects the astronaut as much as it can while not impeding vision. The visor is further coated with a thin layer of gold to act as UV protection and there is a neck ring and a ventilation system. The helmet also has a straw to a drinking bag. Some astronauts stick a piece of velcro with the rough side up inside their helmets for when they get a nose itch in space to prevent them from going batshit insane (or so they say). Then there is the ‘Snoopy Cap’ or Communications Carrier Assembly which is basically a covering worn on the head that houses the microphone and radio. The camera and lights which are usually mounted on the helmet also link to this. The Upper Hard Torso which is made of fiberglass provides rigid support for all the other components and mounting for the extremely vital ‘backpack’. This backpack or the Primary Life Support Subsystem is the housing for several major components. There are two oxygen tanks – one for regular use which lasts upto seven hours and one for emergency which holds upto 30 minutes worth of air. You’ll also find CO2 filters, a water reservoir to regulate the temperature in the whole body and the battery pack. It also houses the Simplified Aid for Extravehicular Activity or SAFER device which is essentially a series of mini-thrusters an astronaut can use in a spacewalk to navigate incase the umbilical cord tethering them to the spacecraft snaps off somehow. The Arms Assembly and Lower Torso Assembly protect the arms and legs respectively with the lower torso assembly taking care of the urine collection system as well (Hey, don’t judge, a space walk can take up to seven hours!). There are actually several layers inside a spacesuit. The lower most layer is the Maximum Absorption Garment or MAG which is essentially an adult sized diaper to collect excreta.Over it an underlayer made out of spandex, an incredibly stretchy material, covers the whole body. The ‘bladder’ or the layer which traps the gas inside the suit is usually made of urethane-coated nylon. A restraining layer to make the bladder conform to a shape is made up of Darcon and then the outer thermal layer is composed of Neoprene-coated nylon. Nearly 300 feet of plastic tubing is interwoven between the layers. This is used as a liquid cooling solution and it is maintained at around 10 degrees Celsius. It also has anywhere from five to eight layers of aluminised Mylar and a fabric surface layer composed of Teflon, Kevlar, and Nomex. The outermost layer is reflective to prevent overheating from the Sun’s rays and protect the astronaut from radiation. Over 80 companies produce the parts for one spacesuit and sets back the space agency a cool 12,000,000 USD.

New space age – and suits!

Humankind always needs to have a frontier, a goal on the horizon to push and strive towards. Since we have pretty much covered all the Earth based land frontiers in the last century, and deep sea exploration is intrinsically tied to space exploration (it just comes down to the pressure differential), countries are starting to fund their space agencies meaningful amounts again. With the advent of technology within the last two decades, more and more complex electronics have shrunk. They are now small enough to add on newer, better materials with incredible properties being invented. We are on the verge of a new space age and our red neighbour is the first one in our sights. NASA is currently developing a line of spacesuits called the Z Series for use in Mars. It utilises a lot of modern composites to make the suit thinner and lighter while not compromising on strength. You can learn more about it here.

The NASA suit focuses on maximising astronaut productivity and ease of use while on the Martian surface. But it’s still a far cry from the skin tight ones that are popular in science fiction. But worry not! Both SpaceX and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on making that a reality. Conventional space suits right now use gas within them to pressurise the wearer. The human body requires a little more than 2.5 PSI for things like lung inflation to function properly. But Mechanical Counter Pressure suits or MCP was a technology first theorised in the late 50’s which works on the basis of the suit itself applying pressure on the human body and therefore cutting a lot of the bulk from the gas. MIT is developing a biosuit based on this technology, each of which will be laser scanned to custom fit an individual. The tension elements will be placed where the body does not stretch in the natural range of motion and elastic cords where the body does stretch, allowing for pretty intuitive motion range as well as decreasing the energy cost to actually perform an action. Right now, they only have the Lower Torso Assembly as a working example but they are confident they can finish building a whole suit soon. SpaceX is keeping tight wraps on their project but a prototype should be out later this year. And as typical of Elon Musk, we expect that it’s going to be pretty amazing as well. India is also currently developing it’s own spacesuit in Gujarat although it is unknown whether it’s going to be an MCP suit or a gas pressure suit. We currently don’t have any resources to send astronauts into space right now but plans are currently being made to have an indigenous mission aboard the GSLV – Mark III sometime in the next five years.

Touchscreen gloves
Touch screen enabled gloves to browse dank memes in outer space

Spacesuits but without all the space

Technologies developed for spacesuits are actually used in several different fields. When you think about it, deep sea exploration isn’t that different from space exploration and spacesuits inspire better diving suits as well as vice versa. There are also the obvious military uses for enhancing soldier’s speed and agility while not compromising on armor (HALO anyone?) and effectively creating a super-soldier of sorts. Something just as vitally important, spacesuit technology is now helping disabled people. Researchers are currently working in a Children’s Hospital in Boston, USA to help people such as infants born with cerebral palsy or other motor skill impeding disorders, paralysis and stroke victims with ‘sleeves’ inspired by spacesuits which will effectively grant them the use of their body parts back . Who knows, maybe we all could be wearing spacesuit inspired clothing in the future as well. Straight outta Sci-Fi town.

This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Prithvi Sudhan

Prithvi Sudhan