Spacesuits

Don’t hold your breath! A human could survive about 15 seconds unprotected in outer space.

These super high-tech garments are essentially personalised, human-shaped spacecraft. They must be both comfortable enough and strong enough to protect astronauts from changes in pressure.

  • Why do astronauts need spacesuits?

    There are few more hostile environments than space. Temperatures range between -100 and 120 C. Dust flies faster than bullets. The sun radiates unshaded through outer space. Heading out on a spacewalk, an astronaut needs a suit that offers protection. A supply of oxygen and water is also vital. Spacesuits designed to be worn outside a spacecraft also have to be pressurised to protect from the vacuum of space.

  • How were the first spacesuits designed?

    The first human to go into space was Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Later that year, Nasa sent its Mercury crew into space. Suits designed for both missions were based on clothing made for fighter pilots experiencing high pressures.

    Each suit had interesting features. Gagarin’s was fitted with mirrors on the sleeves, so he could see controls behind him while strapped into his seat. The Mercury suits were made of nylon coated with shiny aluminium to reflect the dazzling sunlight in space.

  • Were suits different for the Moon landing?

    In 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the Moon. For this, suits had to be designed differently: they were fitted with Moon boots designed to deal with rocky surfaces. Extra layers of material made the Apollo suits safe for moonwalks. The suits also had life support systems built in, so that the astronauts could walk further from the Apollo capsule.

  • What are modern suits like?

    Today’s spacesuits are like a one-person spacecraft. Each has an outer protective layer of extra strong nylon and five inner layers to insulate the wearer. They are usually white to reflect sunlight, and visors are covered with a thin layer of gold, so the astronauts are not blinded.

    Inside, a fan moves oxygen around the suit and water flows around a system of pipes to keep the astronaut cool. The most recent suits have 3D printed helmets, and gloves optimised for touchscreen devices.

  • Are they comfortable?

    Not really. Footage of the first men on the Moon is full of tripping and awkward movements. Because the suits have so many layers, moving around is difficult. Spacesuits are extremely heavy, with some weighing over 120kg. Once in outer space, though, the lack of gravity means they weigh nothing.

  • How will future spacesuits look?

    NASA has plans to send astronauts to other worlds like Mars. Unlike the Moon, Mars has its own atmosphere and a stronger gravitational pull. This means suits must be far lighter. They must be flexible enough for astronauts to stoop down and pick up samples and protect against radiation, high winds and extreme temperatures. Futuristic designs have suits with built-in computers and light panels that make astronauts easy to find.

You Decide

  1. One spacesuit costs around $12 million (£8 million). Is space exploration a waste of money?

Activities

  1. Design a spacesuit that can be worn on future missions to Mars and beyond. How will it look? What will it be able to do?

Word Watch

Radiates
Gives out light and heat energy. In outer space, there is no atmosphere, making the sun’s radiation far stronger.
Spacewalk
A period of time spent outside a spacecraft while in space.
Pressurised
Maintaining pressure artificially. Aeroplane cabins are pressurised while flying.
Vacuum
A space entirely empty of matter.
Nasa
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is part of the US government responsible for the civilian space programme, as well as space research.
Apollo
The Apollo 11 mission was run by Nasa and completed the first-ever Moon landing.
Visors
A see-through, moveable part of a helmet that can be pulled down to cover the face.
Atmosphere
An envelope of gasses surrounding the Earth or another planet.
Gravitational pull
Mars has weaker gravity than we do on Earth, but more than the Moon.

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