In his 2017 book, Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of Discovery, veteran American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year, 2015-16, aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on a unique mission, refers to his spacesuit as “a tiny spacecraft” rather than something he was wearing.
The harsh conditions in space present a unique challenge. Understandably, there are different types of spacesuits, depending on the sort of activity the astronauts are involved in. In technical terms, a spacesuit is designed based on “operational requirements”.
Over the years, you must have seen them in orange and white. Astronauts wear different suits during ascent (launch) and re-entry (landing). For the manned missions of the Artemis programme, which will take humans back to the Moon, astronauts will wear the Orion Crew Survival System suit in US space agency Nasa’s Orion spacecraft. Astronauts also wear different suits when working in and around the ISS.
For, things change in outer space and orbit. India’s forthcoming Gaganyaan mission will see astronauts wear space suits developed by the Russian company Zvezda. Rakesh Sharma, who became the first Indian in space as part of the Soyuz T-11 mission in 1984, wore a Russian-made Sokol suit. Spacesuits have come a long way since.
The early years
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1961, wore an orange SK-1 pressure space suit made by Zvezda. Inspired by the high-altitude pressure suits of aircraft pilots, it had a non-detachable visored helmet, leather gloves and boots, and a leather-covered radio headset. It even had a mirror sewn into it for Gagarin to see hard-to-spot controls on the Vostok-1 spacecraft.
The same year, Alan Shepard became the second man in space through Nasa’s Mercury programme. His Mercury suit was a modified version of a US navy high-altitude jet aircraft pressure suit, with an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon fabric and a restraint outer layer of aluminised nylon.
According to a document from the company ILC Dover, this suit had an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon fabric and a restraint outer layer of aluminized nylon. This suit even had zippers for a better fit and special gloves that made it easier to use the spacecraft controls. Astronaut John Glenn wore the same suit when he orbited the Earth three times in the Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962.
There may not be a more universally recognised image than that of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the lunar surface in a white spacesuit. The image was captured by Neil Armstrong, who—along with Aldrin—made history with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The white colour has a key role: It reflects heat and protects astronauts from high temperatures on the Moon’s surface (temperatures in direct sunlight in space can be well over 135 degrees Celsius).
The Apollo space suits, the Extravehicular Mobility Units, consisted of the suit and a life support “backpack”, called the PLSS, or portable life support system, which supplied oxygen for breathing, suit pressurisation and ventilation, apart from performing other critical functions. These suits were custom-made, flexible and sturdy enough to not only protect the astronauts from sharp rocks on the lunar surface but allow them to collect lunar samples easily. A protective outer layer was included owing to the risk of micrometeoroids.
These suits had several layers and came with a space helmet made from high strength polycarbonate. These helmets were fixed and astronauts were free to move their heads inside them, unlike many designs before. All this meant that the Apollo spacesuits were heavy. The lunar surface spacesuit and PLSS weighed 180 pounds on Earth. But, thanks to the difference in gravity, only 30 pounds on the Moon.
The space tourism era
Commercial space tourism has opened up a world of possibilities—even in terms of spacesuit design. SpaceX—the Elon Musk-led company which uses a fully reusable transportation system—eventually plans to take humans to the Moon and Mars. The SpaceX suit, which was worn by crew members during the Crew Dragon spaceflights—is a modern masterpiece. It has a 3D-printed helmet that houses microphones for communication and valves that regulate the suit’s pressure systems. The visor is noticeably bigger, offering a better view. The gloves are touchscreen-compatible and zippers around the wrist area allow astronauts to use their bare hands on controls when needed. More importantly, the outer layer of this suit is made of flame-resistant material.
Boeing’s Starliner suit—in a striking blue—is another modern rendition that is highly mobile and lightweight. It has mobility joints that allow a greater degree of movement even when the suit is pressurised. The suit also features special footwear developed in collaboration with the footwear company Reebok.
Next-generation suits and the future
The next-generation spacesuits that will be worn by astronauts returning to the Moon for the first time since the 1970s will be sleeker and more advanced. Earlier this month, Nasa, along with Axiom Space, debuted the first prototype of the Artemis III suits—the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit (AxEMU) spacesuit. Artemis III is expected to launch in 2025.
Though this prototype showcases a dark grey cover material, the final version will likely be all-white since a spacesuit worn on the Moon must be white to reflect heat and protect astronauts from extreme high temperatures. A cover layer is being used for display purposes to conceal the suit’s proprietary design, a statement from Axiom Space adds.
According to Nasa, the AxEMU features the range of motion and flexibility needed to explore the lunar landscape and the suit will fit a broad range of crew members. Its final details remain under wraps but a Reuters report says the AxEMU will also incorporate advances in life-support systems, pressure garments and avionics.
Human missions to Mars will require specialized Martian EVA suits and Nasa is currently working on the Z-series, a next-generation spacesuit platform that will develop technologies to help astronauts live and work on Mars one day.