Spacesuits or suits for space. The name appears explicitly clear. However as there is no definitive boundary marking the edge of Earth’s gradually diminishing atmosphere and the start of space, apart from a few more incontrovertible examples in our mind’s eye, we may feel that the actual parameters of the spacesuit concept are rather nebulous.
That being said, as the ‘Karman Line’ (100km above sea level) for legal purposes continues to be internationally recognised as the ‘edge of space’ it could be concluded that any type of flight suit worn by a human who does not rise to at least this altitude cannot truly be called a spacesuit. In reality the term is rarely used as narrowly as this.
The reason being that as humans move skyward, many of the crucial extreme-altitude technologies, all of which ultimately feature in the famous EMU spacesuit, must often also be incorporated into these other flight suits along the way. Bar a Thermal Micrometeoroid (and anti-radiation) Garment which is an additional requisite to be worn by any astronaut performing an extra-vehicular activity outside of the Space Shuttle at its former Earth-orbital altitude, perhaps few actual differences would be found in the layers of such a spacesuit and those of any high-altitude flight suit worn at 19km or more above sea level. Therefore as white NASA-built EVA spacesuits are synonymous with fully-pressurised and 100% oxygen-supplying helmeted suits, perhaps that explains why any other extreme-altitude suits that also include these life support systems tend sometimes to be called ‘spacesuits’. Beyond what might be identified as the ‘classic’ or most recognised spacesuit designs that have been worn by astronauts and cosmonauts in space, there are a huge number of other kinds that have existed. These include: spacesuits that were developmental only; designs that remain incomplete from abandoned space programs; hybrids; closely-related high-altitude suits worn by non-astronauts; those most iconic from the world of science-fiction. Although we can only scratch the surface of this enormous range, we’ll take a look at a few of the more significant and distinctive spacesuit designs to have been conceived since the dawn of the Space Age.
A major player in the development of space exploration and associated technology, Russia (and formerly the USSR) have designed and built many spacesuits of historical significance.
The Berkut soft spacesuit was essentially a modified Vostok Sokol (SK-1) intra-vehicular activity (IVA) spacesuit with removable helmet developed at the Zvezda 1964-1965 and worn by the Voskhod-2 crew. Made for ever famous by Alexey Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk on the 18th March 1965, the first for mankind, it also served as an emergency pressure suit to preserve the crew in case of accidental cabin depressurisation. In the spacesuit engineer’s continuing search for a universally applicable spacesuit, one that can also serve in low-gravity atmospheric planetary environments, at least in terms of weight, at 41.5kg (6.5stone) the Berkut was a good contender. The suit’s few mobility joints however restricted movement and caused problems on even its famous mission, as it was reported afterwards that any attempt to bend limbs caused ballooning.
Meaning “hawk”, the Yastreb was another EVA Soviet-produced spacesuit in 1966 that was only worn once in the successful Soyuz 4/5 lunar orbit docking rehearsal mission, executed above Earth in 1969. Since the Soyuz 1/2 docking mission was aborted in 1967 and the the Soyuz 7/8’s EVA was cancelled it never reappeared in space. Although a more rigid spacesuit than the Berkut with a complex sub-surface system of lines and pulleys to accommodate movement, it was little heavier than its predecessor. Operating at an air pressure of 5.8psi, its life support provision extended to 2.5hrs.
One of the best known Russian spacesuits of all time however is the Orlan. Meaning ‘Sea Eagle’, the Orlan is perhaps most easily recognised as the opposite number to NASA’s Extra-Mobility Unit in the Russian Space Program. This 120kg (19 stone) cream coloured semi-rigid one-man spacecraft with orange motif performed its first spacewalk in 1977 and is still used by cosmonauts and astronauts today outside the International Space Station. Built by NPP Zvezda and donned via a rear-entry hatch in the backpack, it has spawned many versions throughout its development, with only the Orlan-DM, Orlan-M, and Orlan-MK units having been capable of providing power for the longest-duration space EVAs. An internationally worn and well-regarded spacesuit that from early on could be operated without a spacecraft umbilical, it also requires a thermal undergarment to be worn, but overall remains a much quicker suit to don than the EMU. Operating at a higher air pressure of 5.8psi and only taking 5 minutes to put on, the crewmember can have completed their EVA ‘pre-breathing’ cycle and be ready to enter space within half an hour.
Another single-nation major player that has been moving to a more prominent position in the development of space technology in recent decades, China has some spacesuits to call its own. With a range of spacesuits already identifiable with the ever-developing Chinese Space Program, such as the Shenzhou IVA suit and the Feitan, the latter 2008 Chinese-manufactured spacesuit is perhaps best recognised as the reverse-engineered equivalent of the Russian Orlan spacesuit. The 120kg (18 stone) spacesuit uses purely Chinese digital communication and data management systems.
Some other spacesuits that have played a key part in the progression of spacesuit functionality down the decades include the AX-5, the I-Suit, and the Mark III. Primarily known as developmental spacesuits, these spacesuits are ones that in and of themselves were never intended to go beyond low-Earth orbit. Rather they provided an opportunity for specific functional elements or overall design competencies to be assessed with the hope that where effective and efficient, these aspects could eventually be incorporated into more mainstream and trusted designs.
Remember Wallace & Gromit’s the Wrong Trousers? Although the 1988 AX-5’s hard metal exoskeleton made it look like the winner of the ‘restrictive spacesuits’ contest for the last few decades, the dark horse winner of the title in fact may have more likely gone to the inconspicuous lower torso of the EMU used by the crew during Shuttle mission extra-vehicular activities. Although in many respects looking just as supple as the white-legged versions we recall seeing the Apollo astronauts perform Moonwalks in, these EMU lower torso sections were in reality built with few mobility joints since it was recognised that the astronauts’ useful range of movements outside the Orbiter would be performed by the upper-half of the body only. In contrast the AX-5’s remarkable achievement as an experimental hard suit was its range of mobility. During tests, the multi-joint structure produced for NASA by manufacturer Ames allowed the occupant to carry out approximately 95% of the standard contortions of the human body, while wearing the spacesuit. Although also offering excellent protection from micrometeoroids in space, it was recognised that the suit’s full hard shell covering and total weight would ultimately disadvantage any explorer operating in a low-gravity planetary or lunar environment. Testing revealed that despite layers of comfortable padding within the suit, over longer duration EVA’s the AX-5’s composite metallic hull would start to make its bulky presence felt and could potentially injure the occupant.
Another highly progressive developmental spacesuit was the MK III (H-1), better known as the Mark III, manufactured by ILC for NASA. During testing in 1992 the landmark prototype managed to maintain “almost shirtsleeve-equivalent” flexibility for the astronaut inside, despite its non-“pre-breathe” air pressure of 8.3psi. The spacesuit’s express aim was to test technologies and new design elements for possible future missions to the Moon and other planets.
The 2005-production 3rd Generation I-Suit. This rear-entry spacesuit built by ILC is the latest and most advanced of its previous configurations which have been evolving since 1997. Built for possible future planetary excursions this spacesuit has a limited number of bearings and is made from ‘soft’ suit fabrics to further reduce the EVA garment weight precedent.
Another interesting category of spacesuits in the developing space story are those that “never were”. These are spacesuits that although having left the drawing board and perhaps having even reached the production stage, for one reason or another never ultimately made it into space.
As spacesuits are effectively direct descendants of high-altitude flight suits (such as the Gemini Program’s version of the US Navy Mark IV), in this light, one example of particular historic interest is the MOL spacesuit. Although perhaps sounding like cosmic fashioning for certain members of the animal kingdom, these MH-7 flight garments were in reality developed from 1965 onwards for the military astronauts (in this context, sometimes referred to as “space spies”) of USAF’s proposed Manned Orbital Laboratory.
However in 1969 when soaring costs and more pressing national defence budget demands guaranteed President Richard Nixon’s cancellation of the entire program, after 22 Launch/entry/early emergency EVA suits had been produced, the line for what would have been Earth’s first pre-NASA-led space station project was discontinued.
Another spacesuit that failed to reach its intended destination was the Krechet-94 of the Soviet lunar landing program. The construction of the 90 kg (196lb) cosmonaut suit commenced in 1967, however after news reached the world in July 1969 that the American Apollo 11 crew had become the first humans to successfully land and walk on the Moon, the Soviet government immediately cancelled its schedule of manned lunar exploration missions.
A much more recent example of a spacesuit design that failed to come to fruition was the intended successor of the Space Shuttle EMU and launch and re-entry ACES spacesuits. With a new inflight and EVA spacesuit contract awarded to Oceaneering International Inc. in 2008, two next-generation spacesuit configurations were to be built for NASA’s Constellation Program and serve astronauts for the duration of their trip to the ISS and in future to the Moon.
The CSSS (Constellation Space Suit System) concept was for the production of a single orange ‘soft’ spacesuit, ‘Configuration 1’ that could be transformed on-board from its IVA configuration to its EVA format. When in space the astronaut would be connected to the spacecraft via umbilical for the purposes of it providing his/her suit’s life support systems. Also in the pipeline were plans for ‘Configuration 2’, a white ‘hard’ suit that was only to be donned with a life support systems backpack for lunar EVAs. With President Obama’s halting of the Constellation project in 2010 there is no evidence that the replacement configurations will be brought into existence anytime in the foreseeable future.
Beyond the historic and sometimes outlandish designs that have served as milestones of the Space Age to date, there is yet a greater umbrella group of ‘spacesuits’, albeit adopting a more flexible definition of the title, that have been worn above Earth’s cloud tops. On examination, most of these flight-worthy garments are the oxygen-accompanied pressure and thermal suits worn by military jet aircraft pilots, high-altitude balloonists, and parachute-jump skydivers.
One of the most memorable examples from this group that made the news in recent days was the ‘spacesuit’ worn by the Austrian extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner, who set three new world record’s in October 2012 while plummeting from a balloon capsule far above Earth’s troposphere. With the majority of us spending most of our lives on the ground and imagining above Earth’s weather systems as must-be space, it’s perhaps easy to see how any who travel at an altitude greater than this and wear protective gear come to refer to all of their high altitude clothing as a ‘spacesuit’.
Eagerly awaiting the new spacesuits that will inevitably emerge as mankind continues to explore space and the heavenly bodies, we can perhaps hope that Neil Armstrong’s description of his famous A7L Apollo spacesuit will continue to be applicable to all its descendants: “Tough, reliable, and almost cuddly”.
(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)