When you get dressed for the day, more than likely you consider things like weather, what you are doing that day, and where you are going.
What happens when the weather has the potential to be extreme, your activities for the day include floating in space or driving a rover on the Moon, and you're located in...space?
Well you wear a spacesuit, of course.
The First Spacesuits
Yuri Gagarin was a young Soviet air force pilot when selected with 20 others for cosmonaut training in 1960. His historic single orbit around Earth as the first human in space took place on April 12, 1961. It took only 108 minutes from ignition to landing. Less than a month later on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when he piloted the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7 in suborbital flight.
Yuri Gagarin's Training Suit
Gagarin had a pressure layer that formed a sealed environment and allowed him to breath. Beneath that layer he wore thermal clothes. Gagarin needed this suit to survive the high-altitude parachute drop that concluded his flight. See his training suit below.
This is the spacesuit worn by astronaut Alan Shepard during the first manned spaceflight launched by the United States on May 5, 1961. The sub-orbital flight was launched on a Redstone rocket from Pad 5 at Cape Canaveral and approximately 15 minutes later, Shepard splashed down in the Atlantic ocean.
The Mercury spacesuit was a close-fitting, two-layer, full pressure suit developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company from their Mark IV pressure suit, as used by the U.S. Navy. It was selected by NASA in 1959 for use in Project Mercury, and during the course of the Mercury program underwent minor modifications, primarily in the shoulders.
Extravehicular activity, or EVA presented a new challenge to spacesuit design. Astronauts no longer needed to just be able to sit in a spacecraft, they needed to be able to travel outside it. EVA proved more difficult than expected. Astronauts became overheated and exhausted. It took NASA until the last Gemini mission to refine the techniques and equipment to make spacewalking effective.
On June 3, 1965, Edward White became the first American to walk in space.
This helmet was worn by astronaut Ed White, Pilot of the Gemini 4 mission in June 1965. This was the first manned Gemini mission in which an astronaut "walked in space".
The helmet was constructed of fiberglass and epoxy resin and was molded to fit directly into the neck bearing. A plexiglas visor, capable of being raised for access, was attached with pivots, and when lowered into pressure sealing position, it locked in place with a latch. The additional visor of plexiglas coated with gold, was designed to filter out the extreme light of the sun's rays. Communication devices with suede-covered ear pads were incorporated into the helmet.
Suiting up for Apollo
The Apollo Program set out with a central mission: to land humans on the Moon. To send astronauts to the Moon, NASA needed to develop lunar spacesuits. Designing a spacesuit to wear on the Moon presented many challenges. Astronauts would no longer just sit in a spacecraft or float outside. They would work on the airless lunar surface, exposed to many dangers. Experts from NASA and its contractors transformed advanced aviation pressure suits into clothing that would protect astronauts on the Moon while allowing them to move about and work.
Developing the Right Suit
While the Mercury and Gemini programs used modified pressure suits worn by pilots for high-altitude flights, Apollo astronauts needed more protection for a more demanding job in a harsh environment. A lunar spacesuit had to provide a pressurized enclosure, supply oxygen, and protect from solar radiation, large temperature variation, and tiny high-speed meteorites. Creating a lunar spacesuit took several iterations.
Apollo Lunar Suit: First Version
In 1965, NASA awarded the contract to create an Apollo spacesuit to the International Latex Company's (ILC) Special Products Division. ILC was a small company with little government experience, so NASA match them with Hamilton Standard as the primary contractor. ILC's winning design proposal featured soft, flexible joints that were more comfortable than previous suits.
Step One: Put on highly absorbent underwear.
Step Two: Put cooling garments on.
Step Three: Suit up.
Step Four: Get connected.
Step Five: Accessorize.
Step Six: Don headgear.
Step Seven: Prepare necessary baggage.
Step Eight: Prepare for the Moon.
On July 20, 1969 astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the Eagle, descended its ladder, and became the first person to step on the Moon. His spacesuit was a key part of that achievement.
Two Apollo suits had been on display since the Museum opened in 1976, helping tell the story of humankind’s first and last journeys to the Moon’s surface. The Museum’s renovation project, which began in 2017, provided our conservation team the time needed to examine the artifacts more closely, and give them a rest from the exposure of being on public display.
Since the landmark successes of the Apollo Program, spacesuit technology has continued to evolve in order to meet our changing goals in space such as the Space Shuttle program, working on the ISS, and even walking on Mars.
The Basics of Modern Spacesuits
How do you put a spacesuit together?
What happens when an intern is tasked with putting together a spacesuit made from "spare" parts of an ISS spacesuit used for spacewalking? By taking it one small step at a time!
The Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) is a backpack propulsion device that gave astronauts mobility for extravehicular activities outside the Space Shuttle. It enabled them to maneuver within the payload bay or fly some distance away without needing safety tethers anchored to the vehicle. The MMU had 24 small gaseous nitrogen thrusters and was operated with hand controllers on the arms of the unit.
On February 7, 1984, on Space Shuttle mission STS 41-B, astronaut Bruce McCandless tested the MMU, serial number 3, which is now a part of the Museum's collection. He made the first untethered spacewalk as he flew some 300 feet from the Shuttle. This MMU also flew on missions STS 41-C as the backup unit for the Solar Max satellite retrieval and STS 51-A as the prime unit for retrieving the Palapa communications satellite.
In 2016, Elon Musk hired Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez to design a spacesuit for his firm. Fernandez is better known for creating costumes for superheroes in films such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). It should not be surprising that the suits, like many things related to Elon Musk's SpaceX operation, intentionally look unlike anything that has gone before them.
In this video, join NASA astronaut Anne McClain and National Air and Space Museum spacesuit curator Dr. Cathleen Lewis and conservator Lisa Young in this discussion about the spacesuits in the Air and Space Museum's collection, including the one Neil Armstrong wore to become the first person to walk on the Moon.
In this video, a panel of spacesuit experts take a look at everything from Apollo-era spacesuits to Hollywood recreations. Bill Ayrey, retired archivist, curator, and Senior Test Engineer from ILC Dover discusses the legacy of the Apollo spacesuits. Ryan Nagata talks about his experiences re-creating some of the vintage suits used in the movie First Man. Nik Moiseev gives interesting perspectives on spacesuits in light of his career as a Russian spacesuit engineer and an American spacesuit entrepreneur, and Dava Newman talks about the next generation of responsive materials for spacesuits to make these form-fitting spacecrafts truly a perfect fit for exploration.
In this story, learn about Pablo de León, who has been in the space business for nearly 20 years working as a space project manager and spacesuit designer. He is currently an associate professor at the University of North Dakota (UND) in the Space Studies Department and director of the UND Space Suit Laboratory, where he and his team are working on the North Dakota Experimental-1 (NDX-1) Mars prototype suit. The team is focused on improving the mobility of spacesuits to help future astronauts walk and work on Mars.