When astronauts explore the vast expanse of outer space, they need to wear high-tech spacesuits to protect them from the harsh conditions of the universe.
Hollywood films dazzled people with space suits, which led them to believe that they could be worn in a matter of minutes.
The spacesuit is actually a fully functional spacecraft that takes hours to wear and requires help from colleagues, said Kathleen Lewis, curator of the International Space Programs and Spacesuits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
“The spacesuit’s purpose is essentially to exist as a humanoid spacecraft that allows humans to self-explorate and do meaningful work outside the spacecraft or the space station,” Lewis explained.
It might take an astronaut about four hours to put on his suit, from start to finish, Lewis says.
Before traveling to space, astronauts must check every piece of equipment and make sure they have enough vital supplies, such as oxygen and water.
Throughout the spacewalk, a team on Earth supports the astronauts.
Sarah Crona, an EVA flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, explained that flight controllers are following a plan of about 30 pages. However, there are other plans that are implemented if any problems arise.
It states that “EVA” means any activity that is carried out outside the vehicle.
space suit analysis
The spacesuit is made of six different components and can have up to 16 layers, according to NASA. Before the spacesuits reach the moon, parts of them are being tested on the International Space Station.
One key component is cooling clothing, said Richard Rhodes, vice president of compression garment development for XEMU at NASA.
The uniforms consist of tubes that circulate water around the astronaut, regulating body temperature and removing excess heat as they complete their work.
Each spacesuit contains a portable life support system, which includes a water tank for cooling clothing, a carbon dioxide removal system, and more, according to NASA.
The costume also includes a two-way radio system so the astronauts can communicate.
The original spacesuits used during the Apollo missions were less flexible than the ones found today.
“When the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, they couldn’t bend over and pick up a rock,” said NASA astronaut Mike Fink. “They had to have a special little tool to hold it.”
Fortunately, spacesuits have come a long way since then, and have a more flexible body with gloves.
Lewis said the gloves are one of the most intricate parts of a spacesuit, and are often the cause of astronauts’ complaints about their suits.
“It is very difficult to design gloves that are protective and also allow the manual dexterity that astronauts need to do meaningful work,” she noted.
Compressed gloves can feel uncomfortable, especially after hours of working in space, she said. It is important to add heating elements to the gloves, because astronauts’ fingers get cold.
One of the astronauts’ exercises before they set out on their missions is to catch a dime underwater, while they are in their suits. Lewis explained that many astronauts are trained in their suits in a swimming pool at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston.
Water simulates the feeling of weightlessness, similar to how you feel in space.
Scientists have experimented with different materials, with varying degrees of success over the years. At one point, Lewis said, researchers tried the fingertips of Kevlar gloves.
“Kevlar is very good at stopping bullets, but not so good at stopping knives,” she said.
Currently, astronauts use synthetic plastic gloves, Lewis says, but scientists are always looking for better options.
There are unique colored stripes on the outside of the space suit.
This method allows astronauts to identify their colleagues when in space, Lewis said.
Rhodes confirmed that this tried-and-true system would be used for Artemis spacesuits.
Making Artemis Spacesuits
NASA needs its astronauts to safely explore the lunar surface under the Artemis program.
Over the past four years, Rhodes explained, NASA has invested more than $300 million in developing the xEMU spacesuit. He states that the team tested dozens of ingredients and evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
The biggest challenge for the Artemis suits, he said, is making sure they are suitable for lunar exploration.
Rhodes explained that the suits should be “light enough to support the lunar mission and robust enough to protect the astronaut while working in the highly hazardous lunar environment.”
There are thousands of parts that go into making Artemis spacesuits, and they are sourced from all over the United States, Rhodes said.
He added that building some parts may take up to a year, but NASA is working to shorten that time.
On the Artemis mission, astronauts need to move freely so they can explore the rugged terrain of the moon, Rhodes says, so his team is working on a suit that allows for more flexibility while still being strong enough to protect the wearer.