Picking out what to wear for work every day is a fairly routine process for most people. For astronauts, however, having the right outfit for the job is a matter of life and death.
Space suits are crucial for keeping crew members alive, and shielding them from the harsh vacuum of space during trips outside the International Space Station. And when we travel beyond lower Earth orbit — perhaps to the Moon or to Mars someday — suits will be a necessary tool. In the season premiere of Space Craft, we dove into the world of space suit design to find out what it takes to make an interplanetary ensemble.
As it turns out, it’s no easy feat. Making a space suit is an incredibly complex design process, involving the interplay of hundreds of different materials — from aluminum alloys to flexible textiles. And a life-support system that circulates oxygen through the suit basically has to sit on the astronaut’s back. “It's very difficult to contain a human inside basically what is a bag full of oxygen,” says Pablo de León, director of the space suit laboratory at the University of North Dakota.
Not only does a suit need to keep people alive, but it needs to be flexible enough to work in. “You have to create it in a way that is mobile, that is comfortable for the astronaut, that is safe and will protect him or her from the vacuum and all the other dangers that you have in space,” says de León. “It's really a challenge.” It doesn’t always work out perfectly. For years, astronauts with particularly wide hands lost a few fingernails after wearing space suit gloves.
Plus, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” design. Space suits have to be specifically tailored for where an astronaut is going. If that destination is Mars, for instance, designers have to take into consideration the Red Planet’s temperature and atmospheric conditions, as well as the type of dust that the suit will come in contact with. And then there’s the gravity of a planet to think about. The Moon has one-sixth the gravity of Earth, which will make objects feel much lighter than they do on our planet. That can have a big influence on the design of a lunar suit.
“For the Moon, you can get by with more weight — more weight in your portable life-support system that will provide you with oxygen and the right temperature,” says de León. “On Mars, it's more complicated because we have more gravity than on the Moon, so you have to make it more lightweight.”
The students and professors at UND have built two prototype suits for deep-space missions: the NDX-1, which is meant to be used on the Martian surface, and the NDX-2, for lunar excursions. I got to try on both of these innovative outfits at the UND campus, and it really taught me just how restrictive a space suit can be. Picking up simple objects or using tools isn’t as easy as you think inside a suit. You can check out how I fared in the first episode above.