From Yuri Gagarin's SK-1 to the suits of SpaceX and the Artemis program

The history of space suits worn by astronauts from 1961 to today

Space exploration is one of the most exciting enterprises humanity has undertaken, and it has faced many difficult challenges.

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One of those challenges was the very limitations of the human body in an environment as unforgiving as space. Beyond the protection provided by the Earth's atmosphere and magnetosphere, human beings would be exposed to extreme temperatures and a lack of pressure that would have fatal consequences for the human body.

The crew of a Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber of the USAF 4925th Test Group (Atomic) during Operation Teapot, 1955. They all wear pressure suits (Photo: Jet Pilot Overseas/This day in aviation).

To cope with high-altitude flights, a pressurized suit had already been used in the US in 1934 for a flight at 40,000 feet, an altitude where oxygen is scarce and air pressure is too low . In the 1950s, the US Air Force developed pressure suits for aircraft flying at high altitudes such as the Convair B-36 Peacemaker strategic bomber and the North American X-15 experimental aircraft.

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin with his SK-1 space suit (Photo: Science Photo Library).

However, the Soviets were the authors of the first pressurized space suit in history, the Skafandr Kosmicheskiy 1 (SK-1). Weighing 20 kilograms, it was used by the first man to make a space flight, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961, on the Vostok 1 mission. The capsule that Gagarin occupied was pressurized, but the The cosmonaut's pressurized suit was necessary since he jumped to 23,000 feet (7,010 meters) upon his return, an altitude at which such a suit was required. Curiously, the USSR denied that Gagarin had jumped and initially claimed that he landed with the capsule.

Alexei Leonov with his Berkut spacesuit during the first spacewalk in history, in 1965 (Photo: Ria Novosti).

The first spacesuit used in space was that of another Soviet cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, who carried out the first spacewalk in history on March 18, 1965, on the Voskhod 2 mission. strong>Leonov wore a Berkut space suit, made by NPP Zvezda and derived from the SK-1. The Berkut weighed 20 kilograms and was designed for intravehicular and extravehicular activity, and caused Leonov serious problems, as it bloated so much that it made it difficult for him to move, due to which he was unable to take photos of his ride spacecraft with the camera that was wearing the suit itself. The Berkut also made it difficult for Leonov to enter the ship, forcing him to enter headfirst, after lowering the pressure of the suit in order to have more freedom of movement, risking decompression.

Astronauts from NASA's Mercury program with Navy Mark VI spacesuits (Photo: NASA).

As for the US space agency, NASA's first space suit was the Navy Mark IV. It was considerably lighter than the first Russian space suits: only 10 kilograms. Developed by the B.F. Goodrich Company, was used in the Mercury program (1961-1963). Its name comes from the fact that it was initially developed in 1959 for high-altitude aircraft by the US Navy, which used these suits until the 1970s. For the Gemini program (1964-1966), the NASA developed new space suits: the Gemini G3C, the Gemini G4C and the Gemini G5C, the latter weighing just over 7 kilograms.

Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin in the Apollo 11 EMU spacesuit in 1969 (Photo: NASA).

Undoubtedly, NASA's most famous space suit was the Apollo EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit). It is the most viewed spacesuit in history, since its Apollo 11 EMU version was used by Neil Armstrong on the first walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. The version of this suit for the extravehicular activity (EVA) had a weight of 35.4 kilograms, because unlike other previous suits, it was equipped with a backpack that included life support, that is, the supply of oxygen and the systems to maintain the temperature and pressure of the suit autonomously, without a connection to the ship.

Russian cosmonaut Salizhan S. Sharipov in a special Orlan suit in 2005 (Photo: NASA).

It should be noted that NASA has also used Russian spacesuits, such as the Orlan, developed by NPP Zvezda and used on spacewalks to the International Space Station (ISS) since 1997, and the Sokol, also developed by NPP Zvezda, used for intravehicular activity on Soyuz spacecraft.

American astronaut Edward T. Lu and Russian cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko in Sokol spacesuits in April 2003 (Photo: NASA).

Since 1998, NASA has also used American Enhanced EMU spacesuits for its extravehicular activity on the ISS. These suits have a weight of 55.3 kilograms. Their additional weight is due to the fact that they have an autonomy of 8 hours, thus allowing longer work outside the Space Station.

American astronaut Rick Mastracchio wearing a NASA Enhanced EMU space suit in 2007 (Photo: NASA).

Today, NASA's most modern space suits are those of the Artemis program, developed by the US space agency in collaboration with its counterparts in Europe (ESA), Australia (ASA), Canada ( CSA), Israel (ISA) and Japan (JAXA). With these suits it is hoped to bring about a new era of lunar exploration. Its weight is 55 kg.

An Artemis III spacesuit (Photo: NASA).

Elon Musk's space company SpaceX is also making its own space suits, with a very futuristic and very light appearance. These suits are designed for intravehicular activity that company's Crew Dragon spaceships. In July 2020, SpaceX published this video explaining how these suits are made:


Main photo: NASA.

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