The complex system of garments that incorporate environmental systems and life support to maintain an astronaut in the harsh environment of space that we know as a space suit was decades away.
Fortunately by the time we were ready to go in to space, the pressure suits designed to be worn had evolved and been somewhat enhanced.
Here are ten of the coolest space suits to be made – ever.
Let’s start with a design classic. In the 60s and 70s the A7L Apollo & Skylab was the spacesuit in which to be seen. Worn between '68 and '75 it was the seventh Apollo spacesuit designed by the pressure suit manufacturer ILC Dover.
Its predecessor (the A6L) was the first to have an integrated thermal cover layer. This protected the suit from scrapes and sheltered the astronaut from thermal solar radiation and micrometeoroids which could puncture the suit.
However, after the fire on Apollo 1 which killed all three crew members the suit had to have an upgrade. The fire proofing prompted the name change and this is the suit you see worn by NASA astronauts for the remainder of the Apollo mission as well as the three Skylab flights (the ones which were manned) and also the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
The A7L had six life support connections which were placed in parallel columns on the chest. The bottom four were used to convey oxygen. The one on the top right was an electrical headset connector and the top left was a cooling water connector which was bidirectional.
Buzz Aldrin can be seen wearing the A7L left on the Apollo 11 Mission (Image Credit)
As such these missions were to give the waiting world below the first ever American spacewalk.
The Gemini suits went through several generations with the G3C and G4C suits worn for all of the missions except Gemini 7 (the G5C). The G3C consisted of six layers of nylon (the innermost was a rubberized bladder).
It had removable boots and a full-pressure helmet with gloves that could be detached by locking rings that allowed the wrists to rotate easily.
The G4C was exactly the same but in space the needs of gentlemen may digger. As well as more layers of insulation the version worn by the pilot had boots integrated in to the design and a sun visor (detachable) which snapped on to the helmet. It was in this suit that Ed White (below) astonished the world in 1965 when he made the first American spacewalk.
Above Dr Jake Maule wears a Mark III prototype to collect rock samples, testing planetary protection procedures during surface EVA. The picture was taken in Svalbard in the Arctic which is about as Martian as it gets on Earth.
The Mark III has a mix of soft and hard suit components which includes a hard upper and lower torso as well as hip elements. These are made of a graphite/epoxy composite. There are bearings which allow constrained relative motion at the ankle, shoulder, hip and waist and the soft fabric joints are at the ankle, knee and elbow.
It is a zero-prebreathe suit, which adds to its overall awesome stature among space suits. What this means is that astronauts wearing a MK III are able to go from an environment made up of mixed gas such as the one found on the ISS straight to the suit without the bends. In other words it is probably the space suit of the future – at least it is what we see on TV shows and movies.
The current EVA demands that astronauts are forced to spend three hours in a pure oxygen, reduced pressure environment before they go outside to avoid risks like the bends.
The Configuration One suit, seen on the left, will be worn for launch and landing. It will also be used for EVAs and – if necessary – at time of major emergency. Unlike most other suits it is not based on the Gemini model but features a closed-loop system similar to the Mark III. The faceplate will be closed by a mechanical seal and will incorporate a sunshade. It will, however, retain the Gemini idea of five layers the innermost of which will be our favorite, the pressure retaining bladder.
Configuration Two will be used for
Over to Russia for a while, which still has plans of its own for space exploration. The Orlan space suit (from the Russian for Sea Eagle which, you have to admit is a very smart name) has been used for spacewalks by the Russians and has also been borrowed by NASA and the Chinese Space Program.
Above you can see John Phillips a veteran of three space missions on one of his many EVAs. You can see Sergei Krikalev, a Russian cosmonaut in the reflection of his visor.
It has been through several incarnations, from 1967 to pretty much the present day with the present model, the Orlan-MK, being tested on an EVA in June of last year. However, it has remained a one piece, semi-rigid model throughout.
It is self-sustaining and it can operate for over nine hours. Another of its advantages is that it can be donned very quickly – in only five minutes.
Like some of the others on our list, the Orlan is rear-entry. While that has no doubt caused sniggers in the more puerile parts of our readership, below is a picture of American Astronaut Clayton Anderson getting in to the Orlan, just to show you that it has very few – if any – connotations.
It was then used in Project Mercury, the very first human spaceflight program that the United States attempted, running from 1959 to 1962. Overall there were six manned flights.
Due to the tiny size of the spacecraft a NASA joke at the time ran that they were worn rather than manned.
Returning to Wiley Post for a second, the suit was designed by Russell Colley who had helped Post in his attempts to build a high altitude pressure suit.
This was the first suit to eliminate the problems with mobility and weight that had beset previous designs, solving the problem by ballooning the suit.
The Navy Mark IV as it was first known attracted the attention of the newly born NASA in 1958 as they saw the suit as the best way to protect their astronauts from the depressurization of the cabin when it was in the vacuum of space. Colley’s design could, they discovered, be easily modified for its new extra terrestrial role.
The Mercury (astronaut Gordon Cooper wears it above) was the first of its kind and as such deserves a special place on this list.
Astronauts were not too fond of them, however. Once the suits were pressurized they could no longer turn their heads within the suit. There is always some sort of drawback, perhaps.
It is the direct descendent of the suits worn by the Gemini astronauts.
It is essentially a pressure garment in one piece, with bladder and ventilation systems integrated in to its design. The oxygen is fed through a connector at the left thigh, entering the helmet at the base of the neck ring. Again, locking rings are used for the helmet and gloves.
Notably, the cover layer of Nomex (for flame resistant meta-aramid material developed in the early 1960s) is colored orange – the international color of space exploration.
Underneath the suit there are urine-containment trunks known euphemistically as a MAG (Maximum Absorbency Garment). The astronauts wear very heavy paratrooper boots with zippers instead of laces, which help to reduce foot swelling and ankle injuries.
In case of fire, care has been taken not to use any cloth on the boots to avoid injury.
This is one of the longer lived space suits too. Anyone who has flown a Soyuz has worn one of these – the Sokol was first used in 1973 and is still used today.
It is not used for EVAs of any kind but its purpose is singular – to keep its wearer alive if the spacecraft was suddenly or accidentally depressurized. If it is close to anything, then it would be the ACES suit.
This isn’t rear-entry either. There are two zips on the chest that form a V. These are opened as is one in the inner pressure layer. The legs are the first to go in, and then the arms go in to the sleeves and the head in to the helmet. Once the cosmonaut is in then the appendix is rolled up and secured with strong elastic bands. Incredibly strong elastic bands.
In order to reflect heat and to stand out against the vast blackness of space the suits are white and the red stripes on the legs enable differentiation between different astronauts. It has a sophisticated control module (or DCM) below.
The first EMU went in to space in 1982 during STS-4. The first EVA did not happen until two launches later. Most of the EMU use has happened on trips to and from Hubble when two sets of astronauts would conduct EVAs. One great incorporation in to the EMU was the inclusion of additional batteries to the gloves, so that the astronauts can keep their hands warm during the night time of each 95 minute orbit. The EMU is currently used by crews of all nationalities on the ISS.
It is a pioneer in the all soft-suit stakes as it meets the requirements that NASA imposes for structural loads, joint mobility and pressure. What is more, as it incorporates improvements in manufacturing and materials since the design of the EMU it is both lighter and more mobile than its older cousin currently in use on the ISS.
Other Image Credits
The below were difficult to credit next to the pictures, due to the layout of the page.
Constellation Suits 2nd Image
Orlan 2nd Image
2nd Sokol Cosmonaut Yury V. Usachev