Technology

Evolution of the spacesuit

Behnken (L) and HurleyImage copyright NASA

The spacesuits that will be worn by astronauts on Wednesday’s Crew Dragon launch have been getting a lot of attention. How do they differ from other attire worn by astronauts down the years?

The futuristic flight suits that will be worn by Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on Wednesday look like they’re a world away from the bulky orange shuttle flight suits worn when astronauts last launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

The helmets are 3D-printed and the gloves are touchscreen-sensitive.

But their primary purpose remains the same – to protect crew members from depressurisation, where air is lost from the capsule. They also provide ensure that astronauts have sufficient oxygen and regulate temperature. A communications link and breathable air are provided via a single “umbilical” cable in the seat that “plugs in” to the suit.

Bob Behnken and Doug HurleyImage copyright NASA
Image caption Bob Behnken suits up in the sleek SpaceX suit

The Starman suits, as they’ve been called, are all in one piece and customised for the astronaut. Their look was conceived by Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez, who has worked on Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

But the suits are just designed for use inside the SpaceX capsule, known as the Crew Dragon. They’re not suitable for use on spacewalks.

Aerospace giant Boeing also has a contract with Nasa to carry astronauts to the space station in its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. It has also developed a pressure suit to protect astronauts during the key phases of launch and re-entry.

Boeing Blue space suitImage copyright Boeing
Image caption The Boeing Blue suit, as worn by Nasa astronaut Chris Ferguson

The Boeing Blue suits are about 40% lighter than earlier generations of spacesuits worn by American astronauts – and more flexible.

It contains a series of different internal layers to keep astronauts cool. The suit also has touchscreen-sensitive gloves – so astronauts can work with tablets in the spacecraft. The suit’s soft, hood-like helmet features a wide polycarbonate visor to give Starliner passengers better peripheral vision throughout their ride to and from space.

Zips in the torso area will make it easier for astronauts to comfortably transition from sitting to standing.

In October 2019, Nasa shared a close-up look at two next-generation suits for the agency’s Artemis programme. Under this effort, Nasa will seek to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, using the agency’s Orion spacecraft.

Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) on the left and the Orion Crew Survival SuitImage copyright AFP
Image caption The Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU, (L) and the Orion Crew Survival Suit being revealed in 2019

One of the suits is called the Orion Crew Survival System, and is comparable to the suits used by SpaceX and Boeing. It recalls the so-called Pumpkin suits used by space shuttle astronauts, but is more lightweight.

The other suit, called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) suit is designed to be worn on the surface of the Moon. It is much bulkier than the pressure suits designed to be worn inside spacecraft.

This is because it needs to protect the wearer from temperature extremes outside the walls of the spacecraft, and provide some shielding against micrometeorites and other small particles of space debris. In that respect, it is similar to suits previously used for spacewalking at the International Space Station.

Cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov outside the space station in 2014Image copyright NASA
Image caption Cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov wearing the Orlan suit outside the space station in 2014

There are two suits used for spacewalking at the ISS. One is the Russian Orlan type, which was first used in December 1977.

The Orlan is a one-piece spacesuit. The “backpack” opens like a fridge door, allowing the spacewalker to climb inside.

Nasa’s Extravehicular Mobility Suit (EMU) was introduced in 1981 and is the other suit used for spacewalks at the ISS.

Christer FuglesangImage copyright NASA
Image caption Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang on a spacewalk in the EMU

Unlike the Orlan, the EMU comes in two separate pieces – a bottom and top half. The semi-rigid suit provides around 8.5 hours of life support for its wearer outside in the vacuum of space.

Astronauts travelling to the ISS train with both the EMU and Orlan suits.

The suits worn by Apollo astronauts on the Moon were also called the EMU. It was the result of years of development.

Buzz AldrinImage copyright NASA
Image caption Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969

Spacesuits have come a long way since the first spacewalk by the late cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in March 1965.

Leonov’s suit inflated after he stepped out into the vacuum, so that his hands came out of his gloves. Only by bleeding air out of the suit, which put the cosmonaut at risk of the bends, was he able to get back inside the spacecraft.

First spacewalkImage copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption A painting by Alexei Leonov of his spacewalk in 1965

The Crew Dragon spacecraft is set for launch at 16:33 EDT / 21:33 BST from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52787365

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