Humans have explored the infinite abyss beyond Earth’s atmosphere for over half a century.
When astronauts explore the vast expanse of outer space, they need to wear high-tech spacesuits to protect them from the frigid conditions of the cosmos.
Hollywood movies have glamorized the iconic suit, its design leading the masses to believe it’s an outfit that can be slipped on within minutes.
In fact, the spacesuit is its own fully functioning spacecraft that takes hours to put on and requires help from one’s colleagues, said Cathleen Lewis, curator of international space programs and spacesuits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
“The purpose of the spacesuit is to essentially exist as a human-shaped spacecraft that allows the human being to autonomously explore and do meaningful work outside the comfort of the spacecraft or space station,” Lewis said.
From start to finish, it can take up to four hours for an astronaut to suit up, Lewis said. Before going on a spacewalk, astronauts must check each piece of equipment and make sure they have enough critical supplies, such as oxygen and water.
Throughout the entire spacewalk process, a ground team back on Earth supports the astronauts. Flight controllers follow a procedure plan that’s around 30 pages long, but there are other plans in place should problems arise, said Sarah Korona, EVA flight controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “EVA” stands for extravehicular activity.
The anatomy of a spacesuit
A spacesuit is made up of nearly a half dozen different components and can have up to 16 layers, according to NASA.
NASA revealed a ground prototype of the new exploration extravehicular mobility unit (xEMU) in 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA
One of the main components is the cooling garment, said Richard Rhodes, the deputy lead for xEMU pressure garment development at NASA. The garment is made of tubes that circulate water around the astronaut, regulating body temperature and removing excess heat as they completes their work.
Each spacesuit has a portable life support system, which includes a water tank for the cooling garment, carbon dioxide removal system and more, according to NASA. This component also includes a two-way radio system so the astronauts can communicate.
The original spacesuits used during the Apollo missions were less flexible than the ones today.
“When the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, they couldn’t bend over and pick up a rock,” said NASA astronaut Mike Fincke. “They had to have a little special tool with a handle on it.”
Fortunately, spacesuits have come a long way since then and have a more flexible structure with gloves.
The gloves are one of the most complicated parts of the spacesuit, and they are often the greatest source of complaints astronauts have about their suits, Lewis said.
“Gloves are very difficult to design to be protective and also allow the manual dexterity that astronauts need to do meaningful work,” she noted.
The pressurized gloves can feel constricting, especially after hours of work in space, she said. Their fingers also get cold, so heating elements need to be built into the gloves.
This glove is part of a NASA extravehicular mobility unit, the technical term for a spacesuit. Credit: NASA
When astronauts train to go to space, one of their training exercises includes picking up a dime in their spacesuit while underwater, Lewis said. These explorers need extreme dexterity when working in space, and the gloves are an added challenge.
Much of an astronaut’s spacesuit training is in a pool at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston. The water simulates the feeling of weightlessness, which is similar to how it feels in space.
Scientists have experimented with different materials and had varying degrees of success over the years. At one point, Lewis said researchers experimented with Kevlar fingertips on the gloves.
“Kevlar is very good at stopping bullets but not very good at stopping knives — it’s easily cut,” she said.
Astronauts currently use synthetic plastic gloves, but scientists are always looking for better options, Lewis added.
On the outside of a spacesuit, there are colored stripes unique to each suit. This is how astronauts can tell who is in each suit when out in space, Lewis said.
This tried-and-true system will be used for the Artemis spacesuits, Rhodes confirmed.
Making the Artemis spacesuits
The first step in designing a spacesuit is to “understand who you are designing the suit for, what you want them to be able to do, and where you want them to be able to do it,” Rhodes said.
For the Artemis program, NASA needs their astronauts to be able to safely explore the moon’s surface.
Over the last four years, NASA has invested over $300 million in the development of the xEMU, Rhodes said. His team has tested dozens of components and weighed the advantages and disadvantages of each option.
He said the biggest challenge for the Artemis suits is making sure they are optimized for lunar exploration.
The suits need to be “light enough to support the lunar mission and robust enough to protect the astronaut while working in the very hazardous lunar environment,” Rhodes said.
There are thousands of parts that go into making the Artemis spacesuits, and they are sourced from all around the United States, Rhodes said. Some parts can take up to a year to build, but NASA is working to shorten the duration, he added.
The spacesuits will also be getting some upgrades for the latest lunar mission. Current and past extravehicular mobility units, the technical term for NASA’s spacesuits, allow for minimal movement of the waist, hips or ankles, Rhodes said.
The astronauts on the Artemis mission need to have more mobility so they can explore the rough terrain of the moon, he said, so his team is working on a suit that will allow for more movement while still being strong enough to protect the wearer.