The most fashionable way to dress for the moon

Ever put on snow pants on a December winter day? The cold scrunchy fabric tightening against your skin tends to feel incredibly uncomfortable… it definitely never helped that the ones I was given at15 years old were hot pink… But why wear such a piece of clothing?

Answer: to bear the frigid weather. ❄️

Well, the same goes for astronauts using spacesuits to survive in space. The spacesuit acts as a wearable spacecraft and enables astronauts to survive the harsh environments of our mysterious universe.

I’ll take you through a spacesuit journey, covering topics:

  • What Spacesuits are made of/how they work
  • The Spacesuits of the future
  • And some resources!

Wait, why write about Spacesuits?

You may be asking yourself, of all possible topics to write about, why spacesuits? Apart from the intriguing fact that it prevents, well, death, spacesuits have been used for around 100 years! And they keep evolving…

That’s why I, in an effort to keep up with the future☄️, wanted to learn everything about the one garment that can actually take humans where they have never been before.

➡️ Slight problem: I actually had no idea what methods and materials were used in spacesuits. How do they even work? When did we start using them? Will we even need them in the future? What does a spacesuit contain? Are the materials sustainable?

I had so many unanswered questions in my head, I wanted to create an article that could hopefully answer these questions for you too.

So let’s find out!

The gist of it

Now, as we cannot only wear snow pants to tolerate the cold weather, we would have to wear layers, upon layers upon layers- I mean who wouldn’t like to wear gloves, jackets, a thermal sweater, and even those heavy moon boots your grandmother found at her local warehouse sale.

The same goes for space suits, they are composed of layers, a whopping 14 of them!

To understand the basic layers a spacesuit is composed of, let’s take a look at the xEMU(Exploration Extravehicular mobility unit) also known as the “the modern space suit”. It takes after the basic spacesuits such as the NDX-1, a prototype made in 2018 made to explore Mars.

The xEMU suit is currently being used on the ISS and its design has remained mostly unaltered for the past 40 years, however, with tweaks, it will be worn by moonwalkers on the next Artemis mission to the moon. 🌙

Keep in mind there are many different interpretations of the EMUx suit, all with very similar components but sometimes written differently or placed in a different order, I have summarized all this information so we can get a general idea of how a spacesuit works and its assembly.

Layer 1- 3: making up the Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG)

Layer 1: Underwear

Yes, although astronauts are seemingly omnipotent space gods, they do need to urinate, especially after hours on end of spacewalking. They need an undergarment to do so, thus, the creation of the Maximum Absorption Garment (MAG).

The MAG is essentially an astronaut diaper, using incredibly absorbent sodium polyacrylate. Sodium polyacrylate is a polymer (chemical whose molecular structure is mostly made up of repeated bonds) who can absorb “500 to 1,000 times its mass in the water”! The polymer will lock away the feces and urine during long trips and get disposed of after use.

Click here for a school conducted activity that helps students understand how the MAG works.

The “astronaut diaper”

Layer 2: Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG)

The LCVG

This double-layered wetsuit resembling garment is used to regulate body temperature. Although the Moon ineluctably gets cold, reaching lows of -173 degrees celsius at night (click for more about the moon’s climate🌨), astronauts may also experience extreme heat as they walk around in a- are you ready for this?- 275-pound 💪spacesuit!

This cooling garment, made of nylon tricot and spandex “long underwear” (I promise this is the last underwear layer), reduces the feeling of heat from the skin🔥. It does so through the use of laced plastic cooling tubes, where cooling water💦 from the backpack unit or from the spacecraft, circulates along the garment.

Although researchers are still looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the LCVG, the basis of it is the cooling tubes circulating close to the astronauts' skin, just imagine how weird it must feel to hear the water moving throughout your clothing!

*layer 3: The outer layer of this cooling garment*

The second a spacesuit get’s put on, you are “squaring down from 14.7 to 4.3 lb/in²” says astronaut Jose M. Hernandez (pounds per square inch has to do with the oxygen pressure humans can still survive in).

Hold on, why 4.3?

We cannot enter the vacuum of space using the same atmospheric pressure as on Earth since the astronaut would inflate like a 🎈balloon and float around (NOT a very elegant depiction).

The specific 4.3 pounds per square inch was calculated to allow both enough pressure for our lungs to breathe while maintaining a realistic level of inflation/bulkiness in the spacesuit. Which brings me to the next layer: the pressure garment.

Layer 4: the pressure garment bladder

  • Its main purpose: maintains the right pressure for the body and contains the astronaut’s oxygen for breathing.

Let’s quickly establish where space starts; it is agreed upon that the approximate “delineation” of space is 50 miles above Earth’s 🌎 surface. That’s as long as the Panama Canal, and yes, you can use this fact when filling in your next crossword puzzle🧩.

Thus, to be considered an “astronaut” (our dream label) you would have to have flown 50 miles above Earth’s surface- tough luck.

So, the pressure garment bladder is made of urethane-coated nylon, it inflates in order to create the appropriate pressure (4.3 lb/in²) in the spacesuit. But to maintain that pressure, there is a pressure restraint: Dacron (a type of polyester often used to wrap cushions).

Pressure suits can be both partial and full, but our main focus is the full suit containing maximal protection in addition to more features. Full pressure suits basically surround you in gases (sounds worst than it actually is don’t worry): mostly breathing oxygen.

More about pressure suits.

Layer 5: Torso limb suit

Divided into 2 parts: upper and lower torso

Details of the torso limb suit

This suit encloses every part of the body excluding hands and head. Each is made to custom fit each astronaut’s body. Connected to the upper torso is the EEH (EMU electrical harness). The harness allows astronauts to be connected to biomedical instruments or communication 📲with the spacecraft or the life support system (essentially good for communication).

Think of the torso limb suit as a gatekeeper🚪, it is made up of many connectors being linked to the LCGV or even transferring urine from the MAG to the spacecraft’s waste management system🚀.

A last set of features are the cables and a “block and tackle system”: the cable sustains axial limb loads while the system enables the astronauts to sit and bend.

Layers 6 to 14: thermal meteoroid garment☄️

This garment is laced to the torso limb suit and its purpose lies in its name: protecting astronauts from the penetration of objects/micrometeoroids. Essentially, the armor everyone always wanted when playing a game of dodgeball against strong throwers.😬

Its composition is mostly of aluminized mylar but to go more in-depth:

  • beta cloth
  • aluminized Kapton film (7 layers)
  • Beta Marquisette (6 layers)
  • Neoprene-coated nylon ripstop (2 layers)
  • a woven metal called “Chromel-R” (added to select areas such as the boot, knees, and shoulders to avoid abrasion)

This garment also holds many pockets containing data lists📝, penlights🖊, sunglasses👓…

Thermal meteoroid garment

Some other attachments to the spacesuit:

a) The pressure helmet👨‍🚀

The red neck ring (see left image) is made of aluminum and hooks onto the torso limb suit.

Attached to the neck ring there is a polycarbonate (plastic) double-bonded shell to isolate the astronaut.

There is also a vent pad (not visible in the picture) in the back of the helmet which allows ventilation flow.

b) The pressure glove🧤

Also locking onto the torso limb suit, the pressure glove is used to retain gas.

I won’t get into too much detail about how the flexibility of the glove works but it is mostly comprised of 4 parts: a bladder, fingerless glove, covers (both inner and outer) as well as a restraint system:

  • The bladder looks like your regular dish-washing glove, molded to fit the astronauts' hands, it constitutes the base of the glove
  • The fingerless glove (made of nylon tricot dipped in neoprene) aids in keeping the hands stable and are cemented over top of the bladder
  • The restraint system is just a strap, bandaged over the palm area and used to strengthen grip control and mitigate ballooning effects

c) The extravehicular glove 🥊

As its name suggests, this glove is designed for extravehicular (out-of-vehicle) use and is therefore adapted to thermal protection.

The extravehicular glove contains the thermal meteoroid pressure glove as well as additional insulative material in the palm and fingertip regions.

The thermal meteoroid glove’s design was based on the aforementioned “pressure glove”. The only difference is the thermal meteoroid glove has an added thermal insulating shell.

The grip in this glove has also been ameliorated using Chromel-R coating in conjunction with silicon dispersion.

d) Communications Carrier Assembly (CCA)

The communications Carrier Assembly looks like a swimsuit cap (essentially a fabric cap with microphones, listening gear, and radio communication) and it is worn under the helmet.

As of now, this assembly is working on being improved (it can be rendered inefficient with a slight movement, need for different head sizes, improving audio quality…).

e) Primary Life Support System (PLSS) 🎒

The Primary Life Support System aka “the large explorer backpack we see on astronauts” is what keeps the astronauts alive. It does so by supplying the breathing oxygen. This PLSS also filters the contaminants in the oxygen so it can then travel through the suit.

This “backpack” also permits ventilation, cooling water, and oxygen that’s specifically for body cooling.

Lastly, it contains a communication-telemetry set providing data on the support system itself, how to operate it, and dual voice transmission and reception services.

🔭Click here for an in-depth document detailing each part of the support system!

🌟For a deeper, more in-depth understanding of every component in the suit, check out NASA’s spacesuit document.

That covers most of the suit!!! Congratulations for bearing with me this far, but we are still not done, spacesuits are just too exciting!

Think putting on our trusty snow pants is a hassle? Yes, me too, but with enough people helping, it actually only takes 15 minutes ⏱ to get fitted into the garment layers of the spacesuit. That’s not bad at all!

Let me walk you through how the suit gets put on:

  1. The astronaut first puts on the lower garment that contains the liquid cooling, MAG, and ventilation system.
  2. Then, they put on the lower torso assembly (boots also get attached)
  3. Next, the astronaut slides into the upper torso unit. which is mounted with the life-support backpack on a special connector in the airlock chamber.
  4. The waste rings are connected and then the gloves and helmet are put on.

Quick re-iteration of the spacesuits’ main materials:

  • nylon tricot
  • spandex
  • urethane-coated nylon
  • Dacron®
  • neoprene
  • aluminized Mylar®
  • Gortex®
  • Kevlar®
  • Nomex®
  • Fiberglass
  • polycarbonate material
  • And more!

Problem: Almost none of these listed materials are actually sustainable♻️! With the exception of neoprene, fiberglass, and polycarbonate material.

However, some of these materials can be put to sustainable use, such as nylon which, in its form is non-biodegradable and generates 310 times more greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but can be made into Econyl (recycled nylon).

There has got to be a way to come up with more sustainable materials. Thinking of studying the making of spacesuits with me? We have to dive into: atmospheric science🍃, biology🍄, textiles👘, and engineering📐.

Here are a couple of resources to get you started:

Engineering: Free courses list, Nanoscience and Technology course

Textiles: Future of Fashion and Textiles course

Atmospheric science: Atmospheric science through global warming course, Short video about atmospheric physics

Biology: MIT biology “the secret of life” course

🔹Contact me for more!

So now that we know: what a spacesuit is composed of, its materials, and what needs to be researched and improved, we can finally dive into the future of space suits!

Now it is important to note: when building spacesuits, all aspects of the environment must be taken into consideration. For instance, researchers of the NDX-1 even used a martian soil simulator, taking into account factors including dust, atmospheric composition, and gravity…

This means that the future of spacesuits depends on the future of space travel. We can thus begin thinking about:

  1. Spacesuits for exploring the solar system🪐
  2. Spacesuits for low earth orbit purposes🌏

A couple things that need to be improved:

  • Strength augmentation🏋️‍♂️: “powered exoskeletons” could be put in place for extra support, less fatigue, and more strength.
  • Joint mobility and flexibility: 🏃‍♀️rather than having very rigid components, using materials such as biomimetically inspired inflatable cells (alter suit’s shape) or externally applied electroactive polymers (act like muscles do when electrified).
  • Adaptive pressure garment🥋: Instead of our Michelin man-like pressure garment, researchers suggest having an adaptive counter-pressure layer would be more efficient. This additional layer would essentially enable the suit to elongate accordingly as well as apply the correct amount of pressure to the astronaut’s body.
  • Operational efficiency🎇: the future might allow distributed wireless sensors to be integrated into the caps or headgear. These would permit wearers to monitor the environment around them, adapt accordingly, and be alerted incase of emergency
  • Self-healing materials🩹: I wish one-day spacesuits will actually heal injuries but by self-healing I mean the ability to reseal after a hole or puncture was made in the bladder layer.
  • Aesthetic🎀: Now this article isn’t titled “the most fashionable way to get to the moon” for no reason, with the rise of a possible interplanetary species and a hopeful ability to increase space tourism for commercial purposes aesthetics now matter. This is why NASA has been involving the public in their decisions, they even held a crowd-sourcing event to collect feedback on layer designs.

Look out for these nanothechnology companies! Nanosonic, Aspen Aerogels, NEI Corporation and more… They are working on materials capable of enhancing the durability and containing health monitoring sensors for the suits!

Take a look at the future spacesuits!

Z-2: Prototype Suit (advanced prototype)

Now, this is an “aesthetic” suit, fun fact: it was chosen through a public vote and beat out the two other options by a majority of 63%. Nicknamed “Technology”, the Z-2 takes after the Z-1 which was made to explore the terrains of Mars. The Z-2 has the same purpose, but- you guessed it- more features.

Z-2 vs. EMUx:

  • You could think about the EMUx as a lego toy 🧱, divided into the upper and lower torso and the two parts connect. Well, the Z-2 is more of an onesie, made in one part and you just slide in (the life support system and inner hatch cover are detachable, freeing up access space).
  • More Lightweight
  • Made of more durable materials, or at least they plan to make it that way (the material selection is still not finalized)
  • Design: The Z-2 is clearly more modern than the EMUx, the use of electroluminescent stripes 🚧 enable better vision in dark environments, plus they look really cool 😎

Click here for a great one-pager detailing different aspects of the suit!

The Prototype Exploration Suit (PXS) (advanced prototype)

The PXS suit focuses on general efficiency. Their goal is to optimize for mobility, visibility as well as control, and communication. Just like the Z-2 suit, the PXS will be used for journeys to Mars and is therefore designed especially for spacewalks👣.

PXS vs. EMUx:

  • PXS’s is more lightweight (as it is designed for spacewalks), it aims to carry less equipment
  • It is even more customizable than the EMUx: the PXS’s components are mostly 3D printed🖨️, therefore more parts can be customized to fitting and even be “printed on-orbit, in transit, or on Mars
  • Optimizes for mobility: through the use of less equipment as well as the ability to have fairly tailored sizing, the PXS is meant to allow more movement during EVAs (Extravehicular activity)

The SpaceX spacesuit

This one took the internet by storm. It is so thin that the public worriedly asked whether it functions in hostile space conditions, to which Elon Musk responded: “It definitely works. You can just jump in a vacuum chamber with it, and it’s fine.” Whew.

The suit’s “retro” design was made to be iconic. Trying to mark a new wave 🌊 of space travel through the symbolism of this modern suit. It was even designed by a “Hollywood costume designer” Jose Fernandez, notorious for coming up with the Batman, Captain America💥, and Wonder Woman suit- all allusions to power and hope.

Beyond the science fiction physical aspects, the technologies implemented are also “super” modern; for instance, the helmet is 3D printed custom to the astronauts head.

Here’s the promotional video summarizing the design and some features:

SpaceX suit vs. EMUx:

  • Focus on protective depressurization which the EMUx does not
  • Not practical for spacewalks, the SpaceX suit is essentially an accompaniment to the Crew Dragon spacecraft. So, for now, the EMUx’s is still the best option when it comes to spacewalks.
  • Gloves are touchscreen!

That’s it! you are now equipped with a base knowledge of how spacesuits work and their foreseeable future!

I hope you found this article helpful and make sure to follow my medium and also feel free to connect with me on Linkedin!

Resources:

EMUx infographic

More on how spacesuits work:

Evolution of the suits:

Missions/for fun:

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