Spacesuits are vital for the survival of astronauts in space. Space suits are necessary for any activities in space outside of the shuttle, or in the case of a loss of cabin pressure. You know how the oxygen masks drop in a plane due to loss of cabin pressure? That’s how these work, except it protects you from radiation too. Spacesuits have gone through lots of changes since Alan Shepard first wore one in 1961, but how did the spacesuits of today evolve?
Redditor ethan829 originally made this post on Imgur and Reddit, and then was kind enough to expand upon the details of each spacesuit, taking the time to put together these images and descriptions in order to tell the amazing story behind the evolution of NASA spacesuits in the United States. We appreciate Ethan’s work, and hope you do too!
The history of U.S. spacesuit design
BF Goodrich’s 1st Prototype (1934)
The first pressure suit ruptured during a pressure test, so BF Goodrich redesigned a second suit. The second suit used the same helmet as the first, but the suit became too tight when pressurized so they had to cut the suit from Wiley Post’s body, destroying it in the process.
1st Practical Pressure Suit (1935)
In this suit, Post flew his Lockheed Vega aircraft, the “Winnie Mae” to an altitude of 50,000 ft and discovered the jet stream, cementing the suits legacy as the first functional pressure suit.
Post’s suit is the predecessor to all modern spacesuits, which operate on the same basic principle.
XMC-2 Pressure Suit (1955)
The XMC-2 suit was built by the David Clark Company for the X-15 program. The suit was worn on many early flights of the X-15, the world’s first spaceplane. As of 2015, the X-15 still holds the official world record for the highest speed ever reached by a manned, powered aircraft.
From 1954-1955 NACA, the predecessor of NASA, worked on the X-15 program to create a rocket-powered, hypersonic research aircraft. The X-15 was intended to fly at high altitudes and hypersonic speeds, necessitating the creation of a workable full-pressure spacesuit. This project led to the creation of the XMC-2 pressure suit.
MC-2 Pressure Suit (1958)
The MC-2 suit evolved from the XMC2, and served as a prototype for the spacesuits later used by Mercury and Gemini astronauts. The suit was pressurized with nitrogen gas and required a neck dam to isolate the suit from the helmet, which was supplied with oxygen. The neck dam that separated the nitrogen and oxygen is clearly visible in the above photo.
Joe Walker became the first human to make multiple spaceflights, taking the X-15 above 100 km on two separate occasions in 1963.
The MC-2 would go on to be the basis for future US spacesuits. The pilots of the X-15, including Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong, would eventually be awarded with NASA astronaut wings.
Navy Mark IV Spacesuit (1958)
The Navy Mark IV spacesuit was built by BF Goodrich for Project Mercury. Because of the cramped crew space in the Mercury capsule, NASA elected to use the Navy Mark IV spacesuit due its small size. The suit was originally built by BF Goodrich for high-altitude fighter pilots and was later modified by NASA for space flight.
The most iconic feature was the aluminum-coated nylon outer shell, which gave the spacesuit its distinctive silver appearance.
At the conclusion of Project Mercury the Navy Mark IV was phased out, as the next generation of space exploration, the Gemini Program, required a suit capable of extravehicular activities.
Project Gemini began in 1961, and was intended to develop the technologies and techniques necessary to land a man on the moon. This meant astronauts needed a new spacesuit that allowed them to perform meaningful work outside the spacecraft. The G2-C was an early training version of that spacesuit, featuring the familiar silver outer layer.
The crew of the first manned Gemini flight, Gemini III, wore the G3-C spacesuit. All subsequent Gemini flights (except Gemini VII) used the G4-C suit.
All subsequent Gemini flights (except Gemini VII) used the G4-C suit, which featured additional Mylar insulation and came in variants for intra-vehicular activity (IVA) and extra-vehicular activity (EVA). A modified G4-C suit was worn by Gene Cernan on Gemini IX-A to test the USAF Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Because the AMU expelled hot gases to propel the astronaut in space, a metallic layer was added to the spacesuit “pants.”
The G4-C suit came in an IVA and EVA variant and was worn on all subsequent Gemini flights (except Gemini VII).
Ed White made the first US spacewalk in the G4-C spacesuit, connected to the capsule by an umbilical.
The G4-C was modified slightly for Gemini IX in order to test the USAF Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Additional layers and an outer Chromel R cover protected the astronaut from hot gases expelled from the AMU.
For the 14-day Gemini VII flight, the G5-C spacesuit was designed to be removed during the mission. A zippered hood with a faceplate instead of a helmet and additional adjustment zippers allowed for in-flight removal of the suit.
With the conclusion of Project Gemini and the beginning of Apollo, NASA elected to use a modified G3-C suit on early Block I flights. With a design competition for a lunar EVA suit underway, NASA modified the G3-C to create the A1C IVA suit, seen here worn by the Apollo 1 crew.
After the conclusion of Project Gemini, NASA intended to make two manned flights of the Block I Apollo Command Module before testing the Block II version. Block I flight crews would wear the A1C spacesuit, which was a modified version of the G3-C Gemini suit. Following the Apollo 1 fire, all manned Block I flights were cancelled and use of the A1C suit ended.
The A7L spacesuit was designed to be used for extravehicular activities on the lunar surface. With an 13-layer outer covering called the Integrated Thermal and Micrometeoroid Garment (ITMG). The ITMG was worn to protect the astronaut from thermal radiation in case of rips or punctures.
It was this garment that made the A7L well suited to protect astronauts while on the Lunar surface or in space.
For Apollo 15, 16, and 17, long-duration excursions on the lunar service were planned with the use of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). This necessitated the modification of the spacesuit, and the A7L suit was modified to create the A7LB, featuring new joints at the waist and neck as well as re-positioned hose connections to allow astronauts to comfortably sit in and drive the LRV. Small pouches were also added to the inside of the suit’s neck ring to house energy bars, which were eaten during long EVAs.
Skylab astronauts wore A7LB suits with simplified ITMGs and visor assemblies. Because Skylab EVAs were typically short in duration, life support was provided by an umbilical, with an emergency oxygen supply on the suit’s right thigh.
For the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, astronauts wore A7LB spacesuits with unused hose connections removed and a simplified cover layer. Since no EVA was planned, no EVA helmets or gloves were carried onboard.
The Space Shuttle Program
From STS-1 to STS-4, Space Shuttle crews wore the Shuttle Ejection Escape Suit. Derived from the suits worn by SR-71 pilots, the SEES allowed for safe ejection at up to Mach 2.7 and 80,000 ft.
After STS-4 the Shuttle was declared operational and the ejection seats were removed. From that point on, no pressure suits were worn by Shuttle crews until after the Challenger disaster. From that point on, no pressure suits were worn by Shuttle crews until after the Challenger disaster.
The Launch Entry Suit was used from STS-26 to STS-65 and was a partial-pressure suit built by the David Clark Company.
Because of the limitations of the LES, it was replaced by the Advanced Crew Escape Suit after STS-65, which was a full-pressure suit also built by the David Clark Company. This full pressure spacesuit was a direct descendant of the MC-2 and Gemini spacesuits.
Extravehicular Mobility Unit
The Extravehicular Mobility Unit was originally designed for EVAs from the Space Shuttle. Built by ILC Dover, it features a hard upper torso assembly to increase durability, and soft padding around the torso and arms.
The EMU control panel has reversed labels which are read with a wrist mirror.
When EMU use was extended to the ISS, an enhanced version was developed which features a modular design to allow resizing on-orbit to fit multiple astronauts as well as the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER) propulsion pack to allow an untethered astronaut to return to the ISS.
Additional improvements included glove heaters, improved cameras and radios, and a new warning system. The suits are white to reflect heat and to stand out against the blackness of space.
A SAFER way to spacewalk. If an astronaut drifts off into space, this pack provides the ability to return to the spaceship. It is worn on spacewalks outside the International Space Station, and was worn on spacewalks outside the Space Shuttle.
Z Series Spacesuit Prototype
The Z-1 prototype suit was built by ILC Dover for NASA and features primarily soft components.
It can be configured to use a suitport entry or a traditional airlock as well as for planetary or microgravity EVAs.
The Z-1 is the first Z prototype suit constructed.ILC Dover and the David Clark Company competed for the opportunity to design and build the Z-2 suit, and ILC won the $4.4 million contract in 2013.
The Z-2 suit will incorporate a hard upper torso to improve durability, as well as improved shoulder and hip joints. The Z-2 will undergo testing in a vacuum chamber as well as the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. The suit is planned to be tested on the International Space Station in 2017.
ALL THAT IN LESS THAN 100 YEARS. Where are we going next?! Someone else GO SOMEWHERE.
Photos via NASA.