In 1957, the US was still four years away from its first manned spaceflight, and the prototypes of its spacesuits were still in the experimental stages. This picture from a vacuum chamber, nicknamed the “moon room,” illustrates what was, and still is today, the biggest concern: ruptures in the membrane of the suit that protects the person wearing it from the harsh conditions of space. The unnamed researcher in the photo is wearing a pressurized suit with a rigid upper-body section. What appears to be a weapon isn’t a science fiction movie prop—it is a piece of electronic equipment for detecting leaks in the capsule.
A short history of Space Suits
Things were getting serious as the 1950s drew to a close. NASA presented the Mercury Seven, a group of elite pilots who had trained for years, with one to be selected to be the first American in space. Alan Shephard (back row, left) was given this honor – and responsibility – in 1961. Ten years later, he became the fifth man on the moon and the first to play golf there. Shepard shanked the first ball, but estimated his second shot traveled more than 180 meters. The rather stylish Mercury space suits had a purpose, too. They were designed to protect the astronaut in the event of sudden depressurization of the capsule—an emergency situation that fortunately never occurred. Since the space suits did not have to be pressurized, they were supple and relatively comfortable.
In 1962, a hint of the pop-art late 60s was already wafting through the Mojave desert, the nearest thing to a moonscape here on Earth. President Kennedy had already promised a moon landing, and this prototype suit included a complete life support system, with the spacious helmet roomy enough that you could eat in it. The astronaut simply had to pull his arms out of the sleeves and move them inside the upper section of the suit. Oxygen flowed through a hose attached to the landing module—something that would have significantly limited mobility.
The Gemini 3 crew posed for this photo barely a year before the US launched its first capsule with two compartments. The astronauts selected for the mission were John Young and Virgil Grissom (on the left) and alternates Walter Schirra and Thomas Stafford. Their space suits—six layers of nylon and a Teflon outer membrane—were equipped with portable canisters of pressurized air, something that was usually not included in photos. Fun fact: Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board to give to Commander Grissom an alternative to the less-than-delectable astronaut fare. “Needs mustard!” Grissom was rather pleased—NASA less so—because crumbs then floated throughout the spaceship. Nevertheless, Young became the ninth man to walk on the moon, commanding Apollo 16 in 1972.
The pace of preparations for going to the moon picked up. With the transition from Gemini to the Apollo program, landing on the moon finally became a tangible goal. This test of a space suit designed for the lunar excursion module was an important step for the moon program. Engineer Bill Peterson cinches up test pilot Bob Smyth’s complicated harness. The challenge was that the modular unit had to provide complete life support while still being flexible.
Meanwhile in Zambia, a primary school teacher named Edward Kukuka Nkoloso declared that he would beat the Americans and the Russians to the moon, and even to Mars. Media outlets around the world pounced because Nkoloso had the reputation of pulling attention-getting stunts. Future “Afronauts”—as Nkoloso liked to call his African heroes—rolled down a hillside in a discarded oil drum. Spacegirl Martha Mwamba, who was slated to launch with cats and possibly a missionary, cancelled her plans of exploration when she became pregnant.
Looking back, the story of the Zambian space project had elements of political performance art, a publicity stunt, and half-baked ambition. It’s difficult to say whether any of it was to be taken seriously. Nkoloso, a veteran of the African struggle for independence, had a well-known tendency for subversive actions. Just prior to his space program, he and some of his comrades dug up the corpse of a white person and threw it into a bar frequented only by whites, yelling, “White men, your time is up!”
Even today, this photo of Bruce McCandless moving freely in space astounds viewers. McCandless left Challenger with neither a tether nor air hose in 1984, becoming the first man ever to risk this ultimate form of exposure. His colleagues from the crew captured this iconic photo of astronautics. This spacewalk was not that technically difficult because the Manned Maneuvering Unit—a pressurized suit plus a propulsion system worn like a backpack—could be steered manually with the help of 24 small nozzle thrusters. The thrill of being completely untethered was more a state of mind—and not only for Bruce McCandless.
The BioSuit has a rather unique history, as reality had finally overtaken early research and science fiction. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came up with the idea for an ultralight suit in the 1950s, where only the helmet would be pressurized. Half a century later, they implemented it almost to perfection. If the suit fit snugly and had sturdy construction, it protected the body just like compression socks worn for air travel. The big challenge was cooling the spacesuit—essential for the astronauts who would not have the Earth’s atmosphere to shield them from sunlight. Pressurized suits made for the whole body typically have a water cooling system.
The era for private space travel appeared to have come. In 2017, Elon Musk, the visionary and Tesla CEO, unveiled a spacesuit for SpaceX, his private spaceflight company, which aimed to finally make the colonization of other planets a reality. The capsule in the photo is intended to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back. CEO Musk definitely had a knack for design. His spacesuit recalls Formula 1 race suits—as well as Star Wars.
The International Space Station had a problem. Although NASA was unveiling their new collection of spacesuits, the suits were slowly becoming scarce on the International Space Station. The spacesuits used by the ISS crew at that time had been designed a good 40 years earlier, and the new ones were still years away from production. Spacesuits—called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU) by astronauts—are entirely self-sufficient life support systems, essentially miniature spaceships. They weigh about 130 kilograms and cost upwards of 12 million dollars apiece. The new models needed to be improved on two specific points: providing protection for longer journeys—Look out, Mars, here we come!—and giving the astronauts more room to move. The astronauts on the ISS still have a lot of improvising to do in the meantime.
NASA introduced various new spacesuits in 2017, including the PXS (Prototype Exploration Suit), which was hardly uncomfortable at all! The suit’s highlight is being able to bend the knees at a right angle during a spacewalk–a sensation for those in the know, since the rigid armor of previous generations’ pressurized suits had presented one of the biggest problems for astronauts. Another great feature of the PXS is that astronauts could simply 3D print individual components for the suit when needed. Ideally, this will avoid some embarrassing situations, such as the one from March 2019, the first time two women were aboard the ISS and wanted to leave the spaceship together, but there was only one spacesuit that fit them both.
India began designing their own line of space fashion, as likely the fourth nation with its own manned spaceflight program following the US, Russia and China, and they produced their own prototype of an extravehicular mobility unit. The first Indian space mission is set to start in 2022, fittingly on the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence.