Space suits are cool — and complicated. Earlier this week, my colleague Loren Grush launched her new series Space Craft by seeing what wearing one is like. The answer? Exhausting. Unsurprisingly, science fiction writers, movie directors, and prop-makers also love space suits — you’ll find them everywhere from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Have Space Suit — Will Travel, to the latest Alien movie. But not everybody does their homework: for every fictional space suit that’s more than just a fancy costume, there’s one that’s impractical and nonsensical even in a fictional world.
There’s no such thing as an “ideal” space suit, because you need specific features for different environments. But we can answer a few basic questions. Is a fictional space suit safe and wearable for its characters? Does it perform its task well? And does it realistically look like it could perform that task? With that in mind, here are some of the greatest and most cringeworthy depictions, arranged from worst to best.
I love Titan A.E. to death, but even I have to admit that its space suit is a bit wonky. Years after the destruction of Earth, Cale ends up working salvage on a space station, which seems like a risky job — we even see him get smacked with a huge section of a ship that’s being dismantled.
But although the armored suit superficially looks designed for this work, this one seems pretty dangerous. That huge bubble helmet would provide amazing visibility, but it also looks like it could be easily broken. Those wires or tubes hanging off the back could snag on salvage. And as for the weird series of lights on the chest... what do those even do?
Where to start with Star Trek? The upcoming show Star Trek Discovery features a badass suit that looks like an entire miniature spaceship. But there are also some bizarre, cringeworthy depictions, like these from The Original Series. They’re sparkly! They have weird, seemingly useless colored attachments, the wearer can really only see right in front of them, and the visor extends to the back of their head for some reason.
Fortunately, the show went with some marginally better (but still science fictional) versions for The Motion Picture, and some really plausible ones in Enterprise. But although the latest series’ suits look cool, they don’t seem that realistic either, with an emphasis on armor and propulsion over anything else. We’ll have to wait until later this year to know just what they’re used for.
Explorers on the Moon
One of my absolute favorite space suits appeared long before real humans went into space: it’s in the 1950s Tintin comics (and later cartoons) Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. These suits aren’t what we ended up using: they’re hard armor with a bubble helmet rather than lighter cloth, and seem cumbersome to wear and walk around in, not to mention specifically fitted to each person (and dog!)
But, they’re still a beautiful, iconic design that did draw on some real concepts. While they certainly predate the space age, and Hergé does depict the suits in use on the Moon, as well as a couple of points where they’re being constructed and fixed, which means that he did put some thought into how these theoretical space suits might have functioned.
The 1950 film Destination Moon is another classic that predates the space age, like Explorers on the Moon. But it’s one of the first to deal with space travel in a somewhat realistic way, almost two decades before astronauts landed on the Moon, and even before the first rockets brought the first satellites into orbit.
The suits used in the film look pretty cool. They’re not exactly what we ended up using for Lunar EVAs, but they get all the basics: flexible joints, detachable helmets, life support, and so forth. They even color-coded each astronaut so that the audience could tell each character apart. NASA only figured that out after Apollo 11, when people couldn’t tell the astronauts apart on the television broadcasts, and slapped some stripes onto the mission commander’s suit.
The Stargate franchise has used its share of space suits, ranging from plausibly realistic to downright strange. The last series, Stargate Universe, is definitely the latter. When an expedition is stranded on a distant starship, they discover several of these outfits and use them to explore a couple of hostile planets. But the suits look extremely cumbersome, with a lot of armor that will restrict one’s movement, not to mention corners and edges that could snag on their surrounding. To be fair, they were designed by a long-lost, advanced human race, so maybe we just don’t know what they were going for.
When I first watched Firefly, I was struck by an early scene where protagonist Captain Mal Reynolds is floating through space in a distinctly patched-together suit from repurposed parts, like his old combat helmet. Like lots of things in the series, these suits look like they could be used for any activity, whether that’s stealing cargo, working on exterior repairs, or just moving around outside. But while it fits thematically, these activities are all pretty specific tasks, and I just can’t quite buy that a suit made up of random parts is going to be safe or effective at any of them in the long run.
For a space show, we don’t actually see many space suits in the SCIFI channel’s revival of Battlestar Galactica. On the rare occasions people head into space, it’s usually pilots flying combat or patrol missions, where they wear suits designed to keep a pilot alive after being ejected, which look closer to high-altitude fighter pilot uniforms than your traditional space suit. That said, these suits can keep someone alive on a planet’s surface, as we saw early in the show when Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace is shot down on an uninhabitable moon.
These suits do have great helmets that afford quite a bit of visibility and can be pressurized, but there’s still some sci-fi artistic license. They look improbably easy to move around in, and don’t appear to have a whole lot of life-support options. If you’re shot out, you’ve better hope for a quick rescue.
Mission to Mars
The 2000 film Mission to Mars is an exercise in exasperation, and the space suits that its characters use are no exception. These suits are used interchangeably between surface and space expeditions, and the helmets look as though they limit one’s vision quite a bit.
But there are some good things here too: the suits piggyback off the design of real space suits, and include some realistic details like backpacks, chest controls, flexible joints, and color-coded suits.
Interstellar calls back to past cinematic space suits, which certainly look plausible and realistic, with details like color-coding for different characters. These appear mainly to be used for ground excursions, or for when they’re performing maneuvers in the Endurance. They do have some neat features, like thrusters mounted on the arms that don’t seem all that practical for long-term use.
But ultimately, these suits just look ... kind of boring, which is a shame, given that most of the film’s design is really distinctive.
Weeks before Michael Bay started filming his 1998 blockbuster Armageddon, he apparently went to the props department and was dismayed at the space suits that he saw. “It looked like an Adidas jogging suit on a rack,” he complained. And “if you don’t have cool space suits, your entire movie is screwed.”
The film actually does use some realistic suits. The characters train in a dive tank at NASA, and they’re later seen in the Advanced Crew Escape Suit that real shuttle crews wore during launches. But the suits they wear on the asteroid are fictional “next-generation” designs. They look a bit complicated, and are designed specifically for ground missions, carrying thrusters to keep someone on the ground in a low gravity environment. Props for specific purposes there.
Incidentally, the same year’s other blow-up-the-asteroid-before-it-strikes-the-Earth movie — Deep Impact — also featured astronauts at work in space. But that production used some suits that looked quite a bit more like the ones that are really used by astronauts.
An underrated sci-fi classic is the 1981 film Outland, which featured Sean Connery as a Federal Marshal working on a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. The film features a fairly iconic suit, with a massive helmet with lights designed to show off the actor’s face.
The suits look pretty basic: they’re color coded, have a life support system and a couple of tubes that look as though they’ll get caught on things, but they look fairly rugged and easy to use for their wearers. Those interior lights would probably get annoying though: I can imagine that they’d reflect off the helmet’s inner surface and be really distracting.
Sam Bell, the sole occupant of a mining facility in Duncan Jones’ debut film Moon, uses a really fantastic-looking space suit. Bell’s suit draws some inspiration from NASA’s astronauts, as well as some classic science fiction films, like Alien.
This space suit is designed for excursions out onto the lunar surface or driving a rover, and it’s simple enough for one person to don. (Good when you’re the only person there.) The helmet pops off easily enough, and there are plenty of lights for a worker to use while out and about, but the props department didn’t add extras just for show. Another nice touch: Sam’s suit even appears visibly well-used when the film begins.
2001: A Space Odyssey
It’s hard to find a space suit design that’s more iconic than the one from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. These suits appear a couple of times in the film in a couple of different environments: first when the characters go into Tycho Crater to explore an anomaly, and later, on the ship Discovery One.
These suits are designed with a good dose of cool 1960s futurism, but they also get a lot of details right, thanks to designers who worked in the space and tech industry. They have control panels and life support, and seem to perform their jobs well, at least when you have your helmet on. Chris Hadfield later noted that the production even captured things like the sound of breathing while suited up. The production was even good enough to make people think Kubrick faked the Moon landings a year later.
The Alien franchise is loaded with cool space suits, some better than others. Alien leads the way with the suits the crew of the Nostromo’s uses for surface EVAs. These look appropriately designed for use in a harsh environment, while the space ship comes equipped with another space EVA suit stashed away in its shuttle. The suits in Alien: Covenant, which Adam Savage geeked out over at San Diego Comic-Con, are also dedicated-purpose designs, meant for light EVA and surface work. And then there’s the hard suit that’s used for more heavy lifting, and has a completely different design.
But there are also some misses, like the surface suit used in Prometheus. These suits are beautiful: skintight, lightly armored, with a fantastic bubble helmet. But as cool as they look, they don’t seem very functional for serious or unexpected work — and they’re not good at all at keeping alien acid vomit at bay.
The Expanse is set in a plausibly-realistic future in which much of humanity lives and works around the solar system, and a result, the show’s characters use a variety space suits. In most cases, what we see are really utilitarian garments, used by blue collar workers on space ships or space stations.
These suits look as though they are designed with an eye towards practicality, and they’re not overly large or cumbersome. The helmets provide protection and some visibility, with lots of interchangeable parts or attachments for specific needs, such as working on depressurized parts of a spaceship, or out on an asteroid. Like Firefly’s suits, they appear to be well-worn and patched, but these look like they’re quite a bit more durable than those ones.
There are high-tech suits in the show as well: the Martian military uses some heavily armored designs for their soldiers and Marines, who appear to be right at home in space, or on the surface of uninhabitable planets and moons. These suits are not only designed to protect a wearer from outer space, but also to wage war in a vacuum or on the ground.
Of all the films on this list, Gravity draws the most from the real world, so it naturally takes its cues from real equipment. The characters also use a couple of different suits, which is a nice touch: at one point, Dr. Ryan Stone dons a Russian space suit when she escapes into a Soyuz lander.
The film does take some liberties, though. Stone gets in and out of these suits really easily, and doesn’t wear a cooling garment, whereas in real life, these are suits that are quite complicated to put on. But their appearance is as close as we can realistically expect in a big-budget Hollywood film.
In most cases, a film space suit is a film space suit. Sometimes, however, film designers recognize that they need something really specific. Case in point is the EVA suit used in Danny Boyle’s movie Sunshine. What really makes this suit really stand apart is its golden exterior, and the fact that it isn’t designed for any sort of multi-purpose use. It’s intended only for the Icarus and its mission to go close to the sun, and allow the astronauts onboard to go outside if needed in an environment of intense light.
This one is incredibly beautiful: it’s got a golden-reflective surface to protect its wearer from the intense rays from the sun, and was inspired by some unlikely sources, such as Samurai armor and deep-sea diving suits.
The Martian (both the book and the movie) is a story that’s a realistic and plausible take on a future mission to Mars, and Mark Watney’s space suit is probably one of the most important environments in the story. After being stranded on Mars, he spends a considerable amount of time in one.
The EVA suit used in The Martian certainly doesn’t look anything like what the real Apollo astronauts used on the Moon. However, it’s designed with an eye towards of realism for what a Martian mission might require. The helmet is designed to impart as much visibility to the wearer as possible, and provides plenty of critical information. It also looks like parts can be worked on or switched out if needed, useful when you’re far from home. Another bonus comes from the book: they’re each tailored for an individual astronaut, and they aren’t a one-size-fits-all garment.
The film also goes above and beyond by showing that space suits aren’t multi-purpose: there’s one for the ground operations, but also an EVA suit for use in space, which looks really close to modern suits that NASA currently uses.