Celebrating 50 Years Of Spacesuits cover

Celebrating 50 Years Of Spacesuits

By


NASA has a long history with spacesuits that started with pressure suits needed for pilots in high-altitude aircraft.
Early attempts at pressure suits stemmed from the recognition that piston engine aircraft using turbochargers were able to fly at altitudes that now posed new dangers for pilots.
Over time, there have been two types of suits, partial pressure and full pressure; both accomplished keeping pilots alive at high altitudes.





NoteStream NoteStream

NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!

The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.

For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.




Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!

Save to App


Celebrating 50 Years Of Spacesuits

Challenges

NASA has a long history with spacesuits that started with pressure suits needed for pilots in high-altitude aircraft.

Early attempts at pressure suits stemmed from the recognition that piston engine aircraft using turbochargers were able to fly at altitudes that now posed new dangers for pilots. Breathing pure oxygen was not enough to deal with the issues of increasing altitude.

At 43,000 feet, pilots had to contend with cold temperature, approximately at minus 66 degrees F and the need for pressure breathing without it the lungs will not absorb enough oxygen for the individual to remain conscious.

In The Lab

In The Lab

Credits: NASA Photo

Early Efforts

In the 1930s, initial efforts were not practical. The U.S. military pursued the pressure suit concept, as did other nations, and in 1946 the military received the Henry Suit, the first working partial-pressure suit, named the S-1 by the Air Force.

The David Clark Company built a follow-on suit with improvements, which was designated the S-1, for which the Air Force issued a contract. These were "get-me-down" suits, to be used in case of emergencies, and not meant to be worn for extended periods at low to zero pressure.

Back To Earth

Back To Earth

Bill Dana is seen after an HL-10 flight.

Credits: NASA Photo

Pressure Suits

By the time the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor, began flying early experimental planes, or X-Planes, the increased need for pressure suits became apparent due to the high altitudes pilots flew.

Over time, there have been two types of suits, partial pressure and full pressure; both accomplished keeping pilots alive at high altitudes.

Partial-pressure suits are skin-tight and are meant to put pressure directly on the body in case of decompression at dangerously high altitudes. Trapped gas will expand in the absence of pressure; therefore, these suits constrained the human body with essentially a tight, non-breathing fabric.

1966

1966

NASA pilots Milton O. Thompson, William H. "Bill" Dana and John B. "Jack" McKay are seen in front of the X-15 No. 2 rocket-powered research aircraft in 1966.

Credits: NASA Photo

EVA Suits

Full-pressure suits are basically a loose-fitting bag shaped like a human with rings at the wrists and neck to attach the gloves and helmet.

If the cockpit depressurizes the suit inflates to maintain a safe atmospheric pressure around the occupant until the aircraft has reached a low enough altitude for the suit to deflate. Air pressure in the suit keeps an artificial atmosphere around the pilot instead of fabric stretched tightly across the skin.

As the agency began to plan for space exploration, NASA needed to transition from full-pressure suits to astronaut suits called Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA), which was a significant step in protecting humans. EVA suits have a number of features pressure suits do not need, including special cooling and protective exterior cover to ensure the suit cannot be punctured.

Triple Supersonic SR-71

Triple Supersonic SR-71

The triple supersonic SR-71 pilots and crew included, from left, Rogers Smith, Bob Meyer, Marta Bohn-Meyer and Steve Ishmael.

Credits: NASA Photo

2 Big Issues

Modern EVA suits are fully self-contained whereas pressure suits keep the occupant tethered to the airplane for oxygen and cooling air.

Typically, an airplane pilot's full-pressure suit weighs about 35 pounds with the helmet whereas a modern EVA suits weighs over 240 pounds.

Physiologically, there are two big issues to deal with as one goes higher in the atmosphere: dropping pressure and falling oxygen content. Pressure suits are meant to make it possible for a person to survive in an otherwise deadly environment, typically, when something goes wrong in the cockpit of an aircraft.

Ultimate Selfie

Ultimate Selfie

NASA research pilot Tom Ryan snapped this self-portrait while flying NASA's ER-2 Earth Resources aircraft on a high-altitude mission over New Mexico to check out the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar (MABEL) laser altimeter in April 2011.

Credits: NASA Photo / Tom Ryan

Th Armstrong Line

At 35,000-feet, atmospheric pressure is one quarter what it is at sea level approximately 3.5 pounds per square inch versus 14.7 pounds per square inch.

Without breathing pure supplemental oxygen the individual's time of useful consciousness at that altitude is 30-60 seconds. At 63,000 feet, the Armstrong Line is the point at which "vapor pressure of water is the same as atmospheric pressure" and unconfined liquid will boil at room temperature.

Bad Things

According to Dressing for Altitude author Dennis Jenkins, this affect to humans applies to saliva. Blood in the body would still be under sufficient pressure to keep it from boiling.

However, bad things could still happen to the human body at this high-altitude if a human is exposed—it's essentially a vacuum—including hypoxia, and rapid expansion of gas in the body such as bloating and cold temperatures, which would kill an unprotected human very quickly.

Harder Than It Looks…

NASA ER-2 research pilot Donald Stuart Broce describes some of the challenges of wearing a pressure suit...

Video under 4 minutes

Video