There are numerous dangers to life in space: the absence of air, extreme temperatures, intense radiations, unexpected micrometeorite showers, dust storms, and a host of unforeseen situations. If one is heading out to space for work, then what one wears is of utmost importance.
The workwear for this job is not a garment of style or comfort, but primarily a piece of life-saving equipment. Spacesuits, as the space work outfits are called, are a set of contraptions and high-tech equipment designed to navigate the harsh environs of space and enable the wearer to perform critical space tasks and manoeuvres.
Although a spacesuit appears drab and plain, beneath the surface lies meticulously engineered fabrics, backed by extensive research. Each spacesuit works like a single-seater space capsule, adapted to perform a multitude of tasks, and justifiably, costs millions of dollars.
Isn’t it interesting to know how such advanced futuristic outfits are made? Or, how they evolved over the decades to meet the rising challenges posed by each historical crewed mission? Then, fasten your seatbelts! We will take a peek into an astronaut’s wardrobe.
Footing the bill
In the initial days of space travel, the men were confined to their space vehicles. All that was required by their outfits was to ensure their safety. Hence, a modified version of the high-altitude fighter jet outfit with basic life support system sufficed. These single-piece outfits were rubber-lined aluminised fabric which would automatically pressurise during emergencies, keeping the astronauts safe.
As the Gemini missions and subsequently, Apollo missions were rolled out, the astronauts had to perform daring tasks in unchartered territories. The challenges called for a significant makeover of space outfits to suit the extreme conditions of outer space. So emerged the familiar white spacesuit called the Extra-Vehicular Activity suit, EVA or the Extra Mobility Unit EMU.
The Apollo missions envisaged putting men on the moon. The designers were unaware of the actual moon conditions, and so the spacewalk EVA suits were modified for moonwalks. With utmost precautions, new contraptions and high tech gear added to the EVA suits and were customised for the astronauts. The design remains to be the standard until today.
The EVA is a mini spaceship. The outfit has the right amount of pressure to keep the astronauts comfortable when they venture out of the space vehicle. The multiple layers of the specially-designed fabric ensure safety from space dangers like harsh radiation, space dust and debris, along with provisions for food, water and air for the spacewalkers. The backpack holds pure oxygen and dehumidifiers for breathing. The helmet housed a two-way communication system, while the gloves were fitted with heaters to keep the astronaut warm during extreme temperatures. The gloves were also reasonably flexible to perform various space tasks.
Reportedly, Richard Ellis, a model maker for ILC Industries (the US spacesuit makers) crafted the boots for the moonwalkers. They were made from special fabric interwoven with stainless steel, and had thick rubberised soles. The astronauts wore them over their space shoes before descending on to the moon surface. The simple, rounded design had horizontal treads to prevent skidding and left inch-deep footprints on the grey moon soil. Alas, many of these iconic boots were left behind on the moon to manage the return cargo load.
When the Space shuttle missions and setting up of the International Space Station began, more people started going to space. Spacewalks became commonplace, with demand for more number of EVA suits – in various sizes. So, an economical design change came up: instead of customised suits, the new age astronauts’ outfits are now made in parts – arms, legs, upper and lower torso. A full suit flexible to the body measurements of astronauts is assembled off-the-shelf from the individual components. This major design overhaul remains to be the gold standard for EMUs today. Suits are assembled months in advance, and after the mission, they are disassembled, cleaned, checked, tested, and reused.
The building blocks
Intra Vehicular Activity suits (IVA suits) or Advanced Crew Escape Suits, ACES (which are famously called ‘pumpkin suits’), are reserved for launch and entry. The design is in a bright orange to help with identification during emergency search and rescue operations. They are fully pressurised outfits fitted with essentials like a parachute, radio, vital medicines, other components and flares.
The bulky EVA suits are for deep-space activities, and weigh about 100-150 kilos on earth! They comprise 11-16 layers of flexible fabric material sewn together with thermal bonding to form an airtight capsule. These layers form what is called the ‘bladder’ of the suit, which is inflated with pure oxygen.
The next part is the ‘Restraint’ – the unit that gives the structural support to the suit; and finally, the outer protective thermal and micrometeoroid layer which safeguards the astronaut from space dangers. Although each assembly operates independently, overall, they work collectively to provide the necessary protection and support to the astronaut.
The bladder and restraint units are leak-proof and made from polyurethane-coated nylon and incorporate maximum possible joint mobility for the astronaut to move freely. The outermost layers bear the brunt of space hazards. So, they are made from specially woven three-dimensional fabrics with fire-retarding materials and come in white colour to minimise radiation absorption.
The backpack-like unit holds the life support equipment and is portable, providing air to breathe and dehumidify the suit.
No mean task
Unlike the simplicity of wearing a garment, space suits have to be donned and doffed in a sequential manner, which requires assistance. First comes a long innerwear covered by a bodysuit (both hi-tech garments fitted with cooling tubes to keep the wearer comfortable). Then the bladder and restraint, and finally, the outermost layer. The suit has two halves, and the astronaut has to wriggle into the lower and then squirm up into the top portion that is hanging from above.
Along with these, there are several metal rings and locking contraptions to fix at the joints. The components are assembled months in advance, and the astronauts undergo rigorous training to learn how to move and manoeuvre limb joints in space suits.
Fashionable makeover in the offing
Spacesuits are again on the threshold of a makeover. NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions will put people on the moon again. This time around, for longer hauls and heavy-duty works to build permanent settlements on the moon.
For this, there two prototypes have been released called the xEMU (exploration EMU) and Orion Crew Survival suit. Several aspects of the existing spacesuit are modified offering remarkable manoeuvrability, especially the lower limbs; the gloves have a better grip to pick up objects.
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX — a successful private player in space missions — presents sleek and stylishly designed IVAs with touch-screen friendly gloves. The design is touted to be inspired by the superhero series Avengers. Their one-piece suit has a big zipper running through the seam, and to don it, the astronaut has to crawl into it. The lower limb holds life support, which pops open when in use.
These are just a few examples and exciting times are ahead of us when we will witness futuristic, state-of-the-art spacesuit designs, backed by advanced nanotechnology. The new-age space wardrobes are sure to add an edge to future space travels.