The 60’s saw humanity race to the moon as two super powers tried to prove their supremacy over the other. In the short history of our species, landing on the moon has definitely been one of the biggest achievements. Now we are looking at Mars and hoping to one day travel into the farthest reaches of the universe. All this couldn’t have been possible without the spacesuit. Astronauts wouldn’t have survived the rigors of space travel without the spacesuit. So what exactly are their wow factors? If interested in knowing, scroll down.
Even before we seriously started considering space flight or missions to the moon, fighter pilots and test pilots had been using flight suits for very high altitude flights. The atmosphere above the Armstrong line at 19,000 meters is so thin that you need pressurized suits to operate at that altitude. Flight suit pioneers of the 1930’s led to the development of spacesuits that were used in the 60’s.
The first spacesuit ever to be used by a human during a space flight was the Russian SK-1 spacesuit. It was worn by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 during the first ever space flight conducted by a human. NASA’s first spacesuits were worn by astronauts of the mercury program but only inside the spacecraft.
Contrary to popular belief if you were to enter space without a spacesuit you won’t die instantaneously. You can survive in space for at least 15 seconds without any spacesuit. You won’t flash freeze because your body heat can’t be lost that fast through radiation. Your blood won’t boil because it will be inside your pressurized body. Your skin will inflate but not like a balloon and rather more like a body builder. You will be affected by solar radiation but it won’t kill you.
The main function of a spacesuit is to provide a pressurized environment for your body so as to stop it from inflating. This pressure can be provided by providing a layer of elastic rubber like material and also by using pressurized oxygen. This pressure is less than the earth’s atmospheric pressure and allows for improved mobility of the astronaut.
One important factor of spacesuit design is that its overall volume should remain constant when the astronaut moves any joints. The theory behind this is that if the volume doesn’t remain constant then the astronaut will have to do work just to hold his arms in a bended position. This additional work can be exhausting so to minimize this work the suit is designed in such a way so that when a joint moves the volume of the suit remains constant.
One major goal of spacesuit design is to protect the astronaut from solar radiation. On earth we are protected by this continuous solar radiation attack because of earth’s magnetic field. But out in space the astronauts can’t avoid it. Spacesuits are designed to provide limited protection but even it can’t protect the astronaut completely.
The famous boot print picture of Neil Armstrong’s boot on the moon has now become iconic. However the spacesuits used for spacewalks don’t technically have boots in the traditional sense. But Apollo spacesuits had to have tough soled boots because the astronauts were going to walk on the rough lunar surface.
One additional function some of the spacesuits provide is protection from small meteorites and other space debris floating around in space. These tiny objects can be travelling around at very high speeds of up to 27,000 kilometers per hour. At that speed even the smallest object can do great harm to the astronaut. If the spacesuit gets punctured it can result in loss of pressure as well.
Spacesuits are not worn just outside the spacecraft while doing spacewalks or exploring the moon. They are also worn while the astronauts are inside the spacecraft during launching, reentering, landing and connecting to a space station. It is worn as an emergency safety check just in case the cabin loses pressure.