Spacesuits, Part 2

by Duncan Lunan

Fig. 1. Gemini suit exterior (NASA, 1965)

After Project Mercury  (see Part 1), for the longer-duration Gemini missions, in cramped conditions, the spacesuits had to be more comfortable and more robust  (Fig. 1), especially for the work to be performed on EVA, rehearsing for Apollo.  Even so, by the time Gene Cernan had reached his work station at the rear of Gemini 9, he had to give up because he was exhausted and blinded by sweat  (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2. Gene Cernan EVA, Gemini 9, blinded by sweat

Provision of more footholds and handholds proved to be the answer, and on Gemini 12 Buzz Aldrin was able to perform all of his prearranged tasks.  As it turned out, the only major space EVAs on the lunar missions were the retrieval of film capsules and data tapes from the Scientific Instrument Modules of Apollos 15, 16 and 17  (Fig. 3) – something astronaut Al Worden described in his book of poems as ‘like being let out, at night, for a swim, by Moby Dick’.  (Hello Earth;  Greetings from Endeavour, Nash Publishing, 1974.)  The foot restraints for those operations were known to the astronauts as ‘golden slippers’, and one of the NASA guides to a later flight includes the remarkable sentence, ‘After the operation, the astronaut will remove his feet and return to the spacecraft’.

Early training photos show the astronauts wearing Gemini suits as they work with mockups of the Lunar Module  (Fig. 4), and that was how Chesley Bonestell depicted them for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and Sydney Jordan drew them in ‘Moonstruck’, 1964  (see ON, 20th August 2023).

Meanwhile much parallel work was being conducted in the UK, and several opportunities for cooperation were missed.  The British company most involved was P. Frankenstein & Sons Limited, of Birkenhead, who had begun in 1854 as makers of rubberised fabrics.  They made survival suits for pilots over the Arctic convoys in World War 2, as well as firefighting suits, and full pressure suits for flights above 50,000 feet.  In 1955 an RAF Canberra set an altitude record of over 65,000 feet, and in 1957 that was raised to over 70,000.  The aircraft which did so is at Doncaster Airport and being restored to flightworthy condition.  Apart from an initial reaction to the makers’ name, the order that Shackleton crews had to wear their ‘goon suits’ for long-duration Airborne Early Warning missions in the 1970s caused unrest because they were better suited to high-altitude missions where the aircrew would not be moving about.  (Deborah Lake, Growling over the Oceans:  The Avro Shackleton, The Men and the Missions, 1951-1991, Souvenir Press, 2010.)  But one of the Frankenstein company’s distinctions was that they created the spacesuits for 2001, A Space Odyssey.  Of course those elegant suits never had to be used in vacuum, and it could be assumed that the current technical problems would be solved by the film’s supposed date – but it didn’t happen, and hasn’t happened yet.  One authentic detail was that although the suits were silvered when worn on the Moon  (Fig. 5), in the lower sunlight levels of the mission to Jupiter they were brightly coloured, like their 1950 predecessors.

Fig. 5. Landing in crater Clavius, from 2001, A Space Odyssey

NASA ignored the promptings of Destination Moon and 2001, making the moonsuits pure white, which had unforeseen consequences.  One of the standard conspiracy theorists’ claims is that there are multiple sources of illumination in the lunar surface photos, and as I pointed out in ‘Yes, We Really Did Land on the Moon, Part 2’  (ON, October 30th 2022), indeed there are – including backlighting from glass in the lunar soil, and metal foil on the spacecraft and equipment.  But in 2014 NVIDIA technicians constructing a Virtual Reality version of the Apollo 11 landing site were alarmed to realise that there did appear to be an extra light source, apparently a spotlight.  Further work revealed that it was always coincident with Neil Armstrong’s position, and was sunlight bouncing off his suit, which was 85% reflective  (Fig. 6).  (Michael Zhang, Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Served as a Reflector for Bounce Lighting Moon Photos, PetaPixel, online, September 22nd 2014.)

Fig. 6. Neil Armstrong spacesuit as reflector (NVIDIA, 2014)

The other problem was that with the suits pure white, there was no way to tell the astronauts apart.  For years it was believed that there were no photos of Neil Armstrong on the Moon except for the famous one where he’s reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor.  Eventually H.J.P. Arnold of Kodak painstakingly matched up all the photos with the EVA transcripts, and identified the only photo which Buzz Aldrin had taken, showing Armstrong, though you wouldn’t know by looking at it  (Fig. 7). 

Fig. 7. Neil Armstrong outside LM, photo by Buzz Aldrin, identified by H.J.P. Arnold

From Apollo 13 onwards, the Commander’s helmets were made more distinctive  (Fig. 8).  In his colour cover for The Lunar 10  (William Rudling, ed., Jeff Hawke Club, 2007), Sydney Jordan depicted his hero leading a British return mission to the Apollo 17 ‘Shorty Crater’, with its orange soil  (Fig. 9).  As well as the red stripe on his helmet, he had the British flag on his arm – something we weren’t to see in reality until Tim Peake’s underwater training in 2012  (Fig. 10).


For the increasing workload of the Apollo missions an evolving series of spacesuits were designed  (Fig. 11). 

Fig. 11. Spacesuit evolution on display at JSC, Houston (NASA)

One major feature retained from them, in simplified versions for EVA work on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, was that the answer to ‘What do you wear under a spacesuit?’ became ‘water-cooled underwear’  (Fig. 12), circulated through by a Portable Life-Support System in the backpack.  The knee joints were eliminated, and after Bruce McCandless’s successful test on the STS-41B mission, critics were quick to point out that the rigid legs were a useless appendage  (Fig. 13) – leading to speculation that future astronauts might be genetically modified to have extra arms instead of legs and feet.  (Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free, Analog, December 1987 to February 1988 – Fig. 14).  On the May 2013 ISS ammonia pump repair, even as the astronauts were going out through the airlock, NASA TV watchers noticed Mission Control adding more and more to the list of things they mustn’t touch, clip onto or kick – all of which they successfully avoided.

Both US and Russian spacesuits have been used on the ISS.  As noted in ‘Lost on the Moon’  (see above), in the first ever spacewalk from Voskhod 2, in 1965 Alexei Leonov found himself in difficulties because his suit, pressurised with ordinary air, ballooned and wouldn’t let him back into the spacecraft  (Fig. 15). 

Fig. 15. Alexei Leonov spacewalk, 1965

Those difficulties were overcome by 1969, when cosmonauts achieved the first inter-ship transfer between Soyuz 4 and 5  (Fig. 16), and in 1984, Svetlana Savitskaya famously performed welding on the outside of Salyut 7  (Fig. 17).  (As NASA psychologist B.J. Bluth said subsequently, “I’ve met Svetlana.  You don’t mess with Svetlana.”) 

The Russian ‘Orlan’ suit worn on EVAs from the ISS is pressurised at 5.8 psi  (Fig. 18), not much more than the US ones.  In many ways, they are preferred to the American suits because they can be put on in 3-5 minutes, almost as fast as Sigourney Weaver’s  (see Part 1), and in an emergency that could be preferable to the US suit, which takes 30 to 45 minutes.  One drawback is that depressurisation could cause an attack of the Bends, due to nitrogen in the bloodstream – but on ordinary air, there could be only 15 seconds of consciousness in any case.  The US suits use pure oxygen, which would allow much longer survival, but they require lengthy prebreathing to remove the nitrogen.  There’s also a potential danger with the water cooling system:  on his EVA in 2013, Luca Parmitano had to make a hasty return to the airlock when his suit sprang a leak internally, and he was at risk of becoming the first human to drown in space  (Fig. 19).

One reason why Donald Trump’s deadline for a US return to the Moon could not be met was that no suitable spacesuits were available.  The latest ones designed for the Artemis missions are little less bulky than their predecessors  (Fig. 20), and the breakthrough which will allow wearing spacesuits ‘like tuxedos’, with full mobility as well as pressure bracing and temperature control, seems as far away as ever.

Fig. 20. Z-2 and prototype compared to current EMU suit

Yet human skin is nearly adequate for protection in a vacuum, as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out repeatedly since the early 1950s.  (‘Which Way Is Up?” in The Challenge of the Spaceship, Ballantine, 1961;  ‘A Breath of Fresh Vacuum’ (1966), in The View from Serendip. Gollancz, 1978).  The human body doesn’t care what provides the pressure bracing:  the X-15 cockpit and pressure suit were both filled with nitrogen, to minimise the fire hazard, and oxygen was supplied only to the facemask.  We have a remarkable temperature control system via perspiration which is better than most mammals  (Rick Cook, ‘The Long Stern Chase: a Speculative Exercise’. Analog, July 1986).  Even a light pressure bracing could provide humans with a flexible second skin, and the body could achieve its own temperature control as long as it could sweat through the fabric.  A ‘space leotard’ for use on Mars was studied by Paul Webb in the 1960s, and the concept was revived as the Biosuit by Dava Newman and Jeff Hoffman at MIT (Fig. 21), before Prof. Newman went on to become Deputy Director of NASA.  (A. Trafton, ‘One giant leap for space fashion: MIT team designs sleek, skintight spacesuit’, MIT News, online, 16 July 2007.)  But objects in sunlight could be as hot as 127° C, and in shadow, as cold as -272°.  Gloves and galoshes are very well, but how do you put your shoulder to the wheel or your back to the wall, sit, kneel, or brace yourself with an elbow? 

Fig. 21. Prof. Dava Newman in MIT Biosuit (MIT photo, Douglas Sonders, 2007)

A more robust skin, with a better temperature control system, would probably have to be surgically implanted.  Once you’ve gone that far, why not go the whole way to a ‘cybernetic organism’, as Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline termed it?  The late Martin Caidin’s Cyborg and sequels, and the TV version The Six Million Dollar Man, make it look easy:  Lee Majors managed to retain a human appearance in the part, though the original proposal looked a great deal less so when it was introduced to readers of Life in 1960  (Fig. 22).  It’s not so easy when you think about it, and accident victims have been known to sue their doctors when told that ‘we do not have the technology’.  If Steve Austin has one arm much stronger than the other, how do the unaltered parts of his body take the strain?  If he can run at 70 mph, or 120 mph in some later versions, how can he stop without his unadapted parts pitching him on his nose?

Fig. 22. Cyborgs, Fred Freeman, Life, 11 June 1960

The real problems, however, are with the social issues.  It seems impossible for cyborgs to have any more human contact than the impossible ‘space kids’ of E.C. Elliott’s 1950s Kemlo novels  (the ones who can breathe in vacuum), and they’re not likely to take that isolation nearly as well as the space kids did.  In Man and the Planets, I wrote:  “The fear is of an intermediate Burke-and-Hare case;  or criminals, bankrupts and the infirm being offered a ‘choice’ between the cyborg state and Something Worse;  or a military-style draft with the usual bias towards the young, the lower-income groups and the minorities.  In those cases disaffection in the cyborg ranks could make the US Army in Vietnam look like a Sunday-school outing – and, if cyborgs are essential to interplanetary society, pity help that society once the cyborgs have secret food-farms and fuel-cell manufactories.”  (Bladerunner doesn’t show the half of it.)  And I followed that immediately with a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars:  “It’s always fatal to adapt oneself to one’s surroundings.  The thing to do is to adapt your surroundings to suit you.”

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