Have you ever wondered what spacesuits are made of? What materials go into making astronaut suits or why are they white instead of — let’s say — fuchsia?
Well, wonder no more. This article will let you in on the coolest facts about spacesuits, how they’re made, and why they’re made the way they are. Get ready for some fantastic details, because spacesuits are miniature spaceships, equipped with everything needed to keep the human body functioning in space.
So, don’t space out, Junior Astronaut! Jump on board and let’s explore how and what spacesuits are made of.
Wait a second...how many types of spacesuits are there?
What astronauts wear depends on the task they’re handling. As a general rule, they need three types of spacesuits to undergo a space mission.
1. Ascent and descent suits
For ascent and descent, astronauts wear special suits that incorporate communication gears, parachute packs, and pressure pieces that keep blood flowing equally through the body. Without the suit pressing on their legs and abdomen, astronauts would black out when reentering Earth, because gravity would rush all their blood to their lower body.
2. Inside-the-shuttle suits
Inside their shuttles, astronauts wear lighter suits that allow them to move and work more freely. Since the shuttle itself sustains a welcoming environment for humans, there’s no need for bulky, ultra-sophisticated suits.
Astronauts wear plain flight suits with trousers, lined zipper jackets, knit shirts, sleep shorts, soft slippers, and underwear. There’s one trick though: all materials are flame-proof, and clothes have lots of pockets that seal very well (you wouldn't want microgravity having things float out of your pockets).
3. Spacewalk suits (EMU suits)
This is the spacesuit most of us think about when saying…”spacesuit”. And for a good reason, since it’s the one that is actually worn in...outer space.
This type of spacesuit, also known as the extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), is extremely durable because it needs to protect astronauts from all outer space dangers.
First, spacewalk suits need to provide a safe, breathable, not-too-hot or not-too-cold environment; secondly, they need to protect against space debris that can fly at very high speeds; thirdly, they need to have communication gears for astronauts to keep in contact with their fellows inside the shuttle.
Extra: Training suit
Astronauts couldn’t venture unprepared for a spacewalk, which is why they train on Earth. However, the EMU suits are way too heavy to be worn on Earth, so astronauts train using a lighter version.
To recreate the space conditions, astronauts train in a large pool called a Weightless Environment Test Facility, where they have the same feeling of weightlessness as they would in space.
What are spacesuits made of?
Spacesuits are made of 14 layers of materials. Each one serves a well-defined role, making space travel possible and safe.
Space agencies bundle these layers into three categories:
The oxygen layers
The structural layers
The thermal and protection layers
Just imagine yourself alone, in space, outside your shuttle. How would you feel? Awesome, indeed. But also frightened. You’d want to be extra-safe, right? Well, that's why spacesuits have been upgraded from 11 layers to 14.
These layers are enough to offer you a micro-environment much like the one on Earth AND protect you from whatever dangers float through space. These layers also manage to regulate temperature and include communication wires that keep astronauts connected with those on board.
Temperature regulation is also the reason why spacesuits are white, since white can reflect heat. With no barrier between astronauts and the sun, they do need all the help they can get. So, even if they'd feel funkier wearing bolder colours, there's nothing cooler than white.
The EMU has 18 components. We told you this is a mix and match affair, and a very ingenious one at that.
How many core components do you think you can name? C'mon, try. Picture a spacesuit. Do it from memory and don’t ask Google! Note down every part you can remember and see how many core components you got right. Here are the main ones:
Primary life support system: includes oxygen, air purification, temperature control and communication.
Helmet: includes a straw to a drink bag, a visor which shields rays from the bright sun, a camera, head lamps, and microphone.
Ventilation garment: includes cooling tubes to maintain temperature.
Undergarment: is a one-piece suit composed of spandex.
Lower torso assembly: includes pants, boots, thermal socks.
Arm assembly: gloves with small battery-powered heaters in each finger.
Hard upper torso: includes oxygen bottles, water storage tanks, a sublimator, a contaminant control cartridge, regulators, sensors, valves, and a communications system.
Chest mounted control module: a visual display panel and mechanical and electrical operating controls that let astronauts control the suit.
Bulletproof, yet comfortable materials
Spacesuits are built with some of the most advanced, bulletproof materials, plus comfortable, breathable ones.
The inner layers are made of fabrics such as Nylon tricot, and even spandex. For the upper-pressure layers, spacesuits use Dacron, a type of polyester.
On the outside, stronger, more functional materials such as Kevlar, aluminized Mylar, Gortex, and Nomex protect astronauts from debris and micrometeoroids that can be travelling 17,000 miles per hour.
Fibreglass is mainly used for the upper-torso part, while plastic tubing helps cold water run through the suit to cool it down. The helmet is mostly made of polycarbonate material.
And the fabrics used don’t stop here. Stainless steel and high strength composite materials are just a few more.
Quite a lot of complicated names, right? Well, don’t worry if you don’t know them all...yet. Get up to speed with your chemistry, and you’ll get there. Because if you want to become an astronaut — or a scientist — you’ll need to be great at STEM subjects.
How are spacesuits made?
A lot has changed in the way spacesuits are made. But the journey from the first astronaut suit to here is exciting, to say the least.
Ever say the Apollo mission spacesuits? Well, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore one-piece, custom-tailored suits.
Today, spacesuits are designed with mix and match parts that can interchange to fit different body types. All the elements come together with the help of metallic parts that perfectly blend in with one another. Cool, right?
And very efficient. Since a single space suit can take around 2 million dollars to make, it’s only natural that pieces are used for more than one astronaut.
Plus, making a spacesuit is a complicated process. First, the pieces need to be manufactured — this is done by more than 80 producers. Then, the components are brought together, usually in the headquarters of space agencies.
Of course, they are thoroughly tested, because even the slightest flaw can put astronauts' lives in danger.
Space leaves room for no mistakes.
Want to find out more about life in space?
Take this article as a launching pad for your curiosity and continue exploring the fabulous world beyond our world.
Don’t forget your spacesuit!