Spacesuits, Part 1

by Duncan Lunan

Describing my ‘mission’ in the Space Shuttle mockup at the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, 1986  (ON August 14th, 2022), I included a photo of my EVA in the Cargo Bay, in my suit  (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1. DL in Space Shuttle Cargo Bay (Jim Oberg, Houston, 1986)

It’s a denim suit, and my apparent small size  (though I’m just under 6 foot)  demonstrates how large the Cargo Bay really was.  When the astronauts were on Extra Vehicular Activity in the Bay, they were twice life-size because they were wearing full pressure suits  (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. STS-6, Storey Musgrave & Donald Peterson in Cargo Bay, April 4th 1983 (NASA)

1930s critics can be found saying that plans for spaceflight were ridiculous, because the designers had ‘forgotten’ that the Moon had no atmosphere, so the travellers would be asphyxiated when they opened the spaceship door.  Fritz Lang’s Frau in Mond  (1929)  gave the Moon a breathable atmosphere  (Fig. 3), but that was for dramatic reasons, not because the technical advisor Hermann Oberth knew no better.  One of the last such instances of poetic license was probably The Voyage of the Luna-1 by ‘David Craigie’  (Dorothy Glover, 1948 – Fig. 4), where the Moon’s atmosphere wasn’t breathable, but was dense enough for the characters to survive in oxygen masks.  As her unintended castaways were children, there wouldn’t have been pressure suits for them, even if they knew how to use them.  Fritz Lang’s concern was probably that his characters had to be recognisable, in a black-and-white film.  That might seem to be a problem in the b-and-w stills from George Pal’s Destination Moon  (1950), which are normally used, but actually the suits were brightly coloured to tell them apart  (Fig. 5).

Britain took an early lead in the development of suits for high-altitude flight, in the 1930s and 40s  (Griffith J. Ingram, ‘The History and Possibilities of British Space Suits’, Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, June 2023).  In the USA, the first full pressure suit had been built for a high-altitude attempt by Wiley Post in 1935, but even by 1948 such suits largely immobilised the wearer, especially when inflated  (Fig. 6).  That photo wasn’t available to R.A. Smith, who designed or illustrated a range of spacecraft for the British Interplanetary Society.  His design for a ‘Moon suit’ (Fig. 7)  was extensively used in space literature throughout the 1950s;  note that he didn’t anticipate any problem with bending the knees even when the suit was pressurised in vacuum. 

His biggest concern was coping with the temperature, when surfaces in sunlight would get very hot and those in shadow would be very cold;  hence the silvered cape and the crampons on the boots  (Fig. 8).  The Apollo astronauts did indeed wear galoshes on the Moon, which were discarded before departure  (Fig. 9).  Smith’s artwork is normally printed in black-and-white, making it appear as if the whole suit was to be silvered, but a detail from a BIS promotional poster reveals that he too intended them to be coloured  (Fig. 10).

Also in 1948, Fredric Brown wrote What Mad Universe, a novel set in an alternative world in which all the clichés of pulp science fiction are true, including the ‘purple hairy Lunans’ of violent disposition who inhabit the Moon.  It explained why the men’s spacesuits on the covers of pulp magazines were heavily armoured, while the ladies’ ones were transparent and bikinis were worn underneath.  Sigourney Weaver’s famous costume change in Alien combines both  (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Alien

What you wear under a spacesuit made a brief appearance in my story ‘Galileo at the High Frontier’, which was commissioned by Laura Brown of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, on Sauchiehall Street, for an anthology commemorating when the CCA was the Third Eye Centre  (To Arrive at Where We Started, 2012), and reprinted in my collection The Elements of Time  (Shoreline of Infinity, 2016).  She wanted a time-travel story set at the High Frontier exhibition of 1979, marking the tenth anniversary of the Moon landing, and taking my cue from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Galileo’s Dream, which I had reviewed for Concatenation the previous year, I had time-travellers bring Galileo forward to note his reactions to the exhibition.  It was fairly easy to write because the late John Braithwaite and I had discussed staging a conversazione, in which actors playing Galileo, Newton, Kepler and others would discuss the exhibits and converse with the visitors, basing their dialogue on the ‘Watershed’ section of Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers.  On meeting the three of us, Galileo was bemused to note that Gavin Roberts and I were wearing what appeared to be tent-cloth De Nimes.  John was wearing a distinctive padded yellow jacket  (Fig. 12), a ‘golden bear suit’ which his wife had bought him because he had a habit of leaving better ones all over the place.  To Galileo’s eyes it looked like the undercoat of a suit of armour, and looking at the Kodak exhibit of Apollo 11 photos accompanying the Hasselblad camera display, he wondered ‘if he, too, had walked on that rocky surface’.

Fig. 12. DL and John Braithwaite claiming stones for Sighthill circle, Beltmoss Quarry, Kilsyth, (Gavin Roberts, 1978)

Griffith Ingram’s article above adds a final touch to that idea.  In the 1960s and 70s would-be NASA contractors had asked the Master of the Royal Armouries for details of the suit of armour which Henry VIII had made for the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520, to study how the late mediaeval makers had tackled the problem of achieving flexibility with rigid materials.  In 1989 NASA sent a spacesuit across to be photographed with Henry’s armour, and one of their engineers remarked that ‘if he and his colleagues had seen it earlier, it would have saved much time and effort!’

In 1955 Walt Disney collaborated with Wernher von Braun on an animated documentary called Man in Space, featuring the construction of a space station by ‘ferry rockets’  (Fig. 13).  For the assembly work the ‘suits’ would be miniature spaceships with manipulator arms  (Fig. 14).  One featured in a somewhat improbable story by Arthur C. Clarke called ‘The Haunted Spacesuit’  (in his collection Tales of Ten Worlds), where we were asked to believe it was big enough for the ship’s cat to have kittens in it, and the astronaut to go EVA without noticing.  As the late John Brunner remarked of a similar problem in another author’s story, “He walked to the window in the back of the suit.”  Nevertheless in 1961 Republic Aviation produced a compromise design, in which the rigid body of the moonsuit had stilts below so that the astronaut could sit down in it to have a meal, or reach the ground with the trowel and scraper he was carrying  (Fig. 15).  Noticeably, he was wearing gardening gloves.

Fig. 15. Republic Aviation moonsuit 1961

Spacesuit gloves are notoriously the hardest part of the design:  one designer described them as ‘like a spaceship in miniature’.  The photo of John Glenn demonstrating a spacesuit glove to John F. Kennedy cries out for a caption competition  (Fig. 16). 

Fig. 16. John Glenn demonstrates astronaut glove to JFK, 1962

My entry:  “Once again, Mr. President, and get it right this time:  ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself…’”  A similar British test rig, illustrated in Griffith Ingram’s article, suggests, ‘If this doesn’t work, we’ll try waterboarding’.  But the comparison with an instrument of torture isn’t entirely wrong:  on Apollo 15, Dave Scott’s fingers and nails turned black with the effort of placing the scientific instrument package, particularly drilling out core for emplacement of thermal probes. In 1959, two years before the John Glenn-JFK photograph, in the Jeff Hawke story  ‘Time Out of Mind’, Sydney Jordan had portrayed a geologist working with pincers instead of gloves on the end of his spacesuit arm.  That’s a solution that goes back to the Bronze Age, when an artificial hand made in Switzerland came with an optional knife extension  (Fig. 17).  The idea needs more thought:  when I broke my wrist and wore a cast, it was amazing how many tasks needed the use of both hands, but a friend who’d lost his hand as a child could do practically anything with a prosthetic device like two fingers crossed at the tips, and that wasn’t even articulated.  It would take time for astronauts to learn to use similar devices, but could well be worth it.  Powered exoskeleton hands for spacesuits are currently under test at Imperial College, London, which sounds great except that I described similar work at NASA and MIT when writing Incoming Asteroid in 2013.  Like controlled fusion, powered exoskeletons always seem to be a few years off, and simpler prosthetics could help a great deal meantime.

An improved ‘conventional’ suit by Goodyear in 1952 was much illustrated in 1950s books, e.g. Modern Marvels of Flight  (Ward, Lock & Co, 1956 – Fig. 18)  and the Corgi paperback of Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday  (also 1956 – Fig. 19), where it was just about feasible because the atmosphere of Mars was then thought to be around the same density as Earth’s at the top of Mt. Everest.  Partial pressure suits were developed for the USAF’s Man High balloon project, and featured in the film On the Threshold of Space  (1956 – Fig. 20), but for the coming X-15 flights something better would be required;  the Chief Engineering Pilot, Scott Crossfield  (see ON, 6th August 2023), argued that marrying flexible joints with rigid suit components was a dead end, and in an early piece of lateral thinking he proposed approaching lingerie manufacturers, because they knew how to keep fabrics flexible under pressure.  The David Clark Company, who had previously made partial pressure suits, eventually won the contract to produce hand-made full pressure suits for the X-15 and for Project Mercury.  The suits were of the same dull brown colour as their predecessors  (Fig. 21), but a silvery covering was produced to make them more photogenic  (Fig. 22), and that was more functional for the Project Gemini astronauts, who undertook the first US EVAs, in sunlight 10% more intense than on Earth.

The X-15 pilots and Mercury astronauts never left their cockpits during missions, so mobility in vacuum wasn’t an issue, and at ground level they had enough mobility to walk to the pad and to swing themselves into the capsule  (Fig. 23).  Nevertheless, as one of them said at the View from Earth 1984 seminar  (see ‘Eyewitness to History – 3’, ON August 7th 2022), “The only time we all wore those suits at once for a publicity photo  (Fig. 24).  In The Right Stuff those guys wear them like tuxedos.  I don’t know how they do it, because those things are airtight.  They’d better be airtight – the last thing you want to hear when you’re wearing of those is ssssss… That could spoil your whole day.”  Walking to the Transfer Van, and from it to the launch pad, the astronauts carried portable units to keep air circulating inside the suits  (Fig. 25).  In You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery gives away that he’s not an astronaut when he tries to get into a spacecraft with his ACU still attached  (hidden from view, unfortunately, in the only still I could find).

(To be continued)

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