4 November 2011

The 10 Coolest Space Suit Designs

Wiley Post was the first pilot to fly solo around the world but he was also known for his work in high altitude flying. As such he helped to develop one of the fist pressure suits and he can be seen in it on the left. 

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.

Apollo/Skylab A7L

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)

Since an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) suit was not necessary on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 the cover layer was much lighter and more durable and the valves and gas connectors were taken off as they were no longer necessary.  Ironically the first USA-USSR joint mission was the last Apollo mission. Above the American crew of Stafford, Brand and Slayton board the transfer van.

The Gemini Space Suit
Project Gemini consisted of ten manned flights in 1965 and 1966 with the objective of developing the techniques to be used in advanced space travel – especially those that would be needed for the Apollo Missions.

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.

The Mark III

For our third spacesuit what better than the Mark III?  It is an EMU, an Extravehicular Mobility Unit and has yet to be used.  Built by ILC Dover it is heavier than most other suits – the primary life support system backpack alone weighs in at 15 kilograms.  However, it is more mobile than previous suits and unlike the EMU used at the moment is a rear-entry suit (while the EMU in use today is waist entry).

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.

Constellation Space Suit
The Constellation Program was to continue where the shuttle program left off but unfortunately, President Obama proposed a cancellation of the program effective when the 2011 fiscal year begins (though that seems to have changed somewhat, fingers crossed).  So, who can say if the Constellation Space Suit will get off the drawing board?  On paper though, it looks exciting.

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 jollies sorties on the surface of the moon and also long stays on outpost missions there.  Again, it has similarities to the Mark III as it will use a rear-entry hatch design.  It will be a soft suit design, however, which will allow astronauts to bend over and pick up objects when they are in it.  They will be white, as opposed to the orange of Configuration One.

The Orlan Space Suit

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.

When visiting the International Space Station American astronauts use the Orlan when they are participating in extravehicular activities.

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.

The Mercury Space Suit

You can tell perhaps that the picture of astronaut Gus Grisson was taken some time ago.  Otherwise known as the Navy Mark IV this suit was first developed for very high altitude flight in the late 1950s.

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.

Advanced Crew Escape Suit

ACES for short, this suit was first used in 1994 and was in operation until the end of the Shuttle program.  Its name sounds a little scary but the escape refers to the ascent out of earth’s atmosphere and the re-entry back in to it.

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.

The Sokol Space Suit

As the Orlan means Sea Eagle, so the Sokol means Falcon.  You have to admit, the Russians may not have been successful in their attempts to explore space as the US, but they show more flair when it comes to naming their space suits.  Above Cosmonaut Gennady I. Padalka floats in the Destiny laboratory on the International Space Station - wearing his trusty Sokol.

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.

As you can see from the picture above of NASA astronaut Peggy A Whitson having her suit checked before a flight to the ISS, perhaps the best word to describe the donning of this suit is ungainly.

Extravehicular Mobility Unit

The EMU is an independent anthropomorphic system, allowing the protection of astronauts carrying out an EVA in terms of their mobility, communications and life support.  It is the space suit of choice for EVAs on the ISS in earth orbit and is a two-piece semi-rigid suit.  The other space suit used on the ISS is the Orlan (above).

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 upper torso is hard and has a Primary Life Support System attached to it.  The soft lower part incorporates the body seal, waist bearing, legs and boots.  Underneath will be the usual MAG as well as possibly a pair of long johns, depending on the astronaut.  

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.

The I-suit
A glimpse in to the future, perhaps?  The I-Suit has been developed by ILC Dover and began life as a mobility demonstrator for EVAs in all-soft suits.  It is designed for a number of roles, not just EVA and these include planetary excursions.  It is currently configured so it can connect with the EMU helmet and has the same wrist bearing disconnect system.

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.

The EMU is designed, of course, for only EVAs.  The I-suit is meant to enable astronauts to EVA and to walk on the surface of planets too.  Because of this the weight was always going to be a critical factor and the I-suit weighs only 65 pounds compared to 107 for the EMU.  Although it has never been on a mission tests conducted at NASA Desert Research and Technology Study (Desert-RATS) have been very positive.

Other Image Credits
The below were difficult to credit next to the pictures, due to the layout of the page.
Wiley Post
Gemini Suit 
Mark III 
Constellation Suits 2nd Image 
Orlan 2nd Image 
Gordon Cooper 
2nd Sokol Cosmonaut Yury V. Usachev