Also known as atmosphere suit, vac suit, pressure suit, space armor, environment(al) suit, e-suit, EVA suit.
SF author Sir Arthur C. Clarke said "We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins." SF author Ken MacLeod said that the specification of a human being is "a space suit for a fish."
Current NASA suits look like baggy inflated coveralls with a large back pack and a spherical fishbowl over the head. Often in old illustrations there are accordion bellows at the joints.
NASA astronaut always put on a transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patch when suiting up in a space suit, in case of drop sickness. The chances of that are slight, but suffocating inside a helmet full of vomit is a nasty way to die.
Most space suits are Full (Body) Pressure-suits: they offer pressurization of the entire body in space for extended periods. Partial (Body) Pressure-suits only pressurize certain parts of the body for a limited time. They are only used as a precaution, worn inside the habitat module during times when there is danger of it springing a leak (such as during lift-off).
Full-(Body) Pressure-suits can be either Low-Pressure (pure oxygen at 32.4 kPa) or High-Pressure (breathing mix at 101.3 kPa, normal Terran atmospheric pressure).
All NASA spacecraft and space station habitat modules are High-Pressure. At least the ones designed after the Apollo 1 tragedy claimed the lives of three astronauts. Ever since NASA has avoided using pure oxygen atmosphere wherever possible, which means using high-pressure.
The problem is if you go from a high-pressure environment (like a habitat module) into a low-pressure environment (like a low-pressure space suit) you run the risk of the bends. To avoid this the astronaut must do pre-breathing for a couple of hours. If you go from a high-pressure habitat module into a high-pressure space suit the bends does not happen. This is why high-pressure space suits are called "zero-prebreathe" suits.
I suppose some space-faring nation could use low-pressure pure-oxygen habitat modules to avoid pre-breathing with low-pressure space suits, but that would be insanely dangerous. It would be the outer-space equivalent of those stubborn elderly hospital patients who insist on smoking cigarettes while wearing oxygen tanks. A disaster just waiting to happen.
NASA tolerates low-pressure pure-oxygen pressurization in their soft space suits because they have no choice. There is not a lot of research, but NASA seems to think that if an astronaut in such a suit got punctured by a micro-meteor and it caught fire, the main hazard is a fire enlarging the diameter of the breach, not an astronaut-shaped ball of flame.
For what it is worth, the "Apollo Operations Handbook Extravehicular Mobility Unit", Revision 5, Table 2-I quotes the maximum leak rate of 180 cubic centimeters per minute at 25.5 kPa.
Soft suits have flexible exteriors. This means they cannot be pressurized to the same level as the inside of the habitat module or the space suited person will be forced into a posture like a star-fish and helplessly be unable to bend any joints. Lower pressure means the suit uses pure oxygen unlike the habitat module. And pure oxygen means the astronaut has to do hours pre-breathing before wearing the suit or they will be stricken by The Bends.
Soft suits also take forever to put on, they fight your every movement (making EVA work very fatiguing), and if you tear the suit skin you will die horribly in about 90 seconds. When I say "fight your every movement" I mean "raise the energy expenditure to do a task by about 400%".
Currently most of NASA's space suits are soft suits.
Hard-shell suits have rigid exteriors. The advantage is they can be fully pressurized so no pre-breathing is required. They are also much more tear and puncture resistant than soft suits.
The drawback of hard-shell suits is that they make the "forever to put on" and "fight your every movement" problems much worse.
As far as I know there are no hard-shell suits in active use, they are all experimental.
Semi-rigid or Hybrid suits are a cross between soft and hard-shell. For instance, NASA's EMU has a hard-shell upper torso and soft fabric limbs. Current NASA semi-rigid suits are low pressure, but they are working on a high-pressure model.
Skintight suits are a radical concept that is so crazy it just might work. They make the astronaut's skin into the spacesuit, using high-tech spandex to supply pressure instead of using atmosphere. They can be quickly put on, fight your every movement only to the point of a +20% increase in energy, and if the suit is torn the astronaut only gets a bruise instead of certain death. The suits are also much inexpensive than a soft or hard-shell suit. The major draw-back is they require low pressure breathing mix (or the wearer cannot exhale), so astronauts have to pre-breath or face the Bends.
"Planetary suits" are used when there is an atmosphere, but it isn't breathable. They have a slightly different design from space suits.
To recap: Partial Pressure suits only pressurize certain parts of the body for a limited time. They are only used as a precaution, worn inside the habitat module during times when there is danger of it springing a leak, such as during lift-off or if an enemy spacecraft is shooting at you. Partial pressure suits are a trade-off: they only protect you for a short time but in exchange they do not encumber you anywhere near as much as a total pressure suit.
The NASA version is the Launch Entry Suit aka "pumpkin suit." It has ten minutes worth of life support internal to the suit, and can be hooked up to the vehicles life support system for longer duration.
The image above from First Men to the Moon is a partial pressure suit based on an old school Air Force high-altitude suit. If the pressure drops, the pressure regulating tubes along the suit's seams inflate to put the suit under tension. The wearer will then put on the oxygen mask attached to the small tank strapped to their leg.
To recap, Soft Suits:
- Must have lower pressure than the habitat module or the wearer turns into a starfish and cannot bend their limbs. This means the wearer needs an hour of pre-breathing or they will suffer the Bends.
- In case of emergency, when there is no time for pre-breathing, NASA helpfully directs the astronauts to gulp aspirin, so they can work in spite of the agonizing pain
- The breathing mix will be close to pure oxygen, with a higher fire risk.
- Suit encumbrance increases the energy cost to do various tasks by +400%, with a corresponding increase in wearer fatigue.
- If the soft skin of the suit is torn or punctured, the wearer will die in about 90 seconds.
- They take forever to put on
For a list of the parameters for a NASA spec space suit, go here.
The only thing that allows an astronaut to bend their limbs at all is the magic of constant volume joints. These are why most pictures of space suits look like the Michelin Man, with joints that look like accordions.
I have mentioned how science fiction authors can look to the past to find solutions for the future. Well, occasionally this works in the real world as well.
Back in the early 1960s NASA was gearing up for the Apollo program. And they were frankly having a problem designing the space suits.
The space suits used by the Mercury program astronauts were quick-and-dirty knock-offs, basically modified 1950s US Navy jet pilot pressurized flight suits. The Mercury suits were designed for suborbital flights, not moon missions. They sewed simple fabric break lines into the elbows and knees of the Navy nylon suits. Predictably the suits were crap. Astronauts found it almost impossible to blend their legs and arms. It was barely usable for Mercury, but it ain't gonna work for Apollo. A moon space suit has to be rigid and durable (because the moon is a sharp and pointy puncture-prone place and space suits are like big balloons) yet also flexible enough so the astronauts can move and explore the moon.
So in 1962, an outfit called Garrett AiResearch was contracted to help design the moon suits. It was real hard. Nothing like trying to engineer two mutually exclusive properties into a single object to generate lots of head-shaped dents in the wall. After a lot of skull-sweat the company suddenly had the thought that this might be an already solved problem. Was not this the exact same design challenge faced when making medieval suits of armor?
Now most middle-ages suits of armor were meant to be used on horseback. Those had huge holes in the armor, particularly around the joints. Unacceptable for a space suit. However foot combat armor tended to have total coverage. That's more like it.
Back in 1500s there was a certain monarch named King Henry the VIII, you may have heard of him. In 1520 (before he developed his huge beer belly) Henry was invited to the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament. Both King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France were attending, and both were pulling out all the stops to out-swank each other and impress all of Europe. Kind of like the red carpet of the Oscar awards, except with monarchs instead of divas. Henry had a special suit of foot combat armor made: custom designed to a skin-tight fit, lovingly articulated with incredible flexibility, with the ultimate in precise workmanship and engineering. It was beautiful work. Sadly for Henry a rules change meant the armor was never used in the tourney, and in any event he would soon grow too obese to fit into it.
But the armor was lovingly preserved in the Tower of London. So 450 years later when Garrett AiResearch asked about spacesuit-like suits of armor with fine suppleness, the Tower people knew precisely which suit would be perfect.
The Tower sent Garrett photos and data on the armour, which proved to be invaluable. The engineers marveled at the incredible construction and the way each plate linked smoothly to the next while still allowing flexibility. It was exactly the data they needed. One NASA engineer allegedly said he wished they’d known about Henry’s armour sooner as it would have saved time and money. With this data, the Apollo space suit design came together quickly. Though they did leave out the steel codpiece.
In 1970, to show their graititude, NASA loaned a mock-up of the Apollo suit to the Tower of London so they could take photos of Henry's armor and the spacesuit side-by-side.
Henry's armor currently resides in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds in the Tournament gallery, in case you are interested.
Note that such armor would also be a good starting point for military Powered Armor. Though you'll have to "inflate" it a bit so it is not so skin-tight. You need internal space under the armor but over the skin for the motors that give the wearers the strength of Iron Man.
In The Millennial Project Savage suggests that the helmet will have an outer layer of five millimeters of high density lead crystal. Inside will be two layers of dense borosilicate glass sandwiched between two layers of Lexan. The middle layer of Lexan will add strength and prevent shattering, the inner will act as a reserve helmet. The outer surface will be gold anodized to block glare, ultraviolet, and infra-red. There may be a nested set of telescoping curved armor plates that can be deployed for further protection.
NASA helmets are not quite so grandiose.
NASA helmets are spherical domes, which hits the sweet spot between low mass, pressure compensation, and field of view. All current NASA suits have the astronaut's head is held facing forwards, you have to turn your entire body in order to look sideways. Astronauts call this "alligator head".
The helmet has to be comfortable to wear, and help in controlling the humidity inside the helmet (so it doesn't fog up). Another important part is the radio communication unit, since the lack of air in space prevents the sound of your voice from reaching anybody. The old tagline to the first ALIEN movie was "In Space No One Can Hear You Scream". Well, no one can hear Floyd asking somebody to pass him a socket wrench either. NASA suits use "Snoopy caps" to hold the communciation earphones and microphones (in NASA-speak this is called the Communications Carrier Assembly (CCA)).
Other items might include windshield wipers (inside for condensation, outside for dust), a build-in set of binoculars, headlights for shadowed areas, a mirrored sun-visor to prevent sunlight from burning out your retinas, a water drink dispenser, and maybe a gadget that can supply various medications (pain relievers, anti-nausea, stimulants).
As previously mentioned, NASA astronaut always put on a transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patch when suiting up in a space suit, in case of drop sickness. The chances of that are slight, but suffocating inside a helmet full of vomit is a nasty way to die.
The two logical solutions are:
- A system inside the suit. Some sort of water bladder with a drinking nipple inside the helmet, and some kind of food dispenser.
- Some kind of tiny airlock on the helmet capable of passing external food and drink into the astronaut's mouth without letting all the air out.
After 2000, NASA EVA spacesuits featured a disposable internal drink bag, positioned inside the helmet. It was disposable because the expense of ground refurbishing a reusable drink bag was prohibitive. Science fiction authors make a weak joke by referring to the drink bag as a Gunga Din. A very weak joke.
In NASA-jargon, option 2 is called a "Feedport." Science fiction writer Poul Anderson calls it a "Chowlock" (i.e., a airlock for your chow). In Robert Heinlein's HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL the high-tech aliens have space helmets made of handwavium force fields. The fields keep the air in, but allows the wearer to drink from a bottle or take a bite of a food bar.
NASA developed feedports for the Apollo space suits for use in emergencies. If the Apollo command module suffered a catastrophic loss of air pressure, any astronaut lucky enough to get into a spacesuit might have to wear the blasted thing for up to 115 hours. Five days is a long time to go without eating or drinking.
The feedport was held close by the internal pressure of the Apollo suit, a low pressure 32.4 kPa. So when the astronaut tries to insert a water dispenser gun into the feedport, they only have to overcome a resistance of 4.7 pounds per square inch. If the suits were high pressure 101.3 kPa, the 14.7 psi resistance would put up far more of a fight.
More mundanely, the feedport had a secondary function: allowing the astronaut to scratch their itching nose.
In NASA-speak, the backpack is called the Personal (or Primary or Portable) Life Support System (PLSS). At a minimum, it provides breathing mix, removes carbon dioxide, and regulates the suit's pressure.
Additionally it may remove humidity, odors, and contaminants from the breathing mix; cools the astronaut's body with oxygen or a liquid cooling garment; provides radio communication; displays and/or does telemetry of suit parameters; displays and/or does telementry of astronaut's health; and/or provides propulsion for EVA.
NASA's current design for PLSS is not foolproof, as astronaut Luca Parmitano discovered on July 16, 2013 when he almost died as his helmet filled up with water. The drum holes in the PLSS water separator got clogged, and the PLSS designers had a mistaken understanding of how water acts in microgravity (the designers thought it was impossible for the water to back up into the helmet).
As is usually the case, the reason astronaut Parmitano is alive today is because he did not panic. He had to move to the airlock and re-enter from memory, since he could not see with 1.5 liters of water covering his eyes.
The gloves are especially a problem. Back in the 1950's it was unclear if space suit gloves were even possible. You need to make the various protective layers thin enough to be able to fit between adjacent fingers. And with miniature constant volume cuffs at each finger joint. Some suit designers took a tip from deep sea diving suits and postulated mechanical pincers instead of gloves.
But as we know NASA did manage to design actual space suit gloves. However, they do not work very well. Almost every single NASA astronaut who has performed EVA has complaints about the difficulty of doing any fine work while wearing those gloves.
If one does have a ferromagnetic hull, it might be best to have magnets just in the boot heels but not the toes, to facilitate walking. The idea is that if a boot is attached to the hull, you can release it by pushing down with your toes and lifing your heel, using a natural walking motion to detach the magnetic heel. Then the boot moves forward, approaching the hull heel-first. This allows the magnet in the heel to attach.
This topic is gone into in more depth here.
To recap, Hard-Shell Suits:
- Can have the same pressure as the habitat module without the wearer turning into a paralyzed starfish. The Bends are avoided.
- The breathing mix will be the same or very close to that of the habitat module. No additional fire risk.
- Suit encumbrance increases the energy cost to do various tasks by many times that of a soft suit, with a incredible increase in wearer fatigue.
- The hard shell of the suit is very puncture resistant.
- They take longer to put on than a soft suit.
Hard-shell suits try to fix the tearing problem at the expense of making the first two problems much worse. True, hard suits do solve the depressurization problem, but at such a cost.
The AX-5 hard suit was developed by Hubert Vykukal at NASA Ames Research center in the 1960's. It was based on deep sea diving suit technology created by Phil Nuytten of Nuytco Research. The rotating joints are angled with respect to a limb, with two halves each comprising a thick wedge section and a thin section. When a limb is bent, the joint rotate so that the thin sections come together, allowing the suit limb to bend in a correspoinding fashion. For more details, refer to The Rocket Company.
Semi-rigid Suits are sort of a cross between soft suits and hard-shell suits, typically with the chest or torso hard and the limbs soft.
The ideal design is to have a hard-shell torso allowing the suit to be high-pressure with zero-prebreathing required, coupled with separately pressurized soft limbs to avoid the encumbrance penalty suffered by full-(body) hard-shell pressure-suits.
Which is why NASA's EMU puzzles me, it is a semi-rigid suit that appears to have the disadvantages of both with the advantages of neither. No doubt there were other considerations that I am unaware of.
The company ILC Dover made the Mark III suit as a technology demonstrator in 1992. It actually was a zero prebreathe suit. It is pressurized to 57 kPa, which is close enough to the 101.3 kPa used in NASA habitat modules so that the bends is not an issue. The Mark III had the shell covering the entire torso, not just the chest like the EMU. There is a hard upper torso, a hard lower torso. There are bearings at shoulder, upper arm, hip, waist, and ankles. There are soft fabric joints at elbow, knee, and ankle. I do not know why there are both types of joints at the ankles.
One of its main drawbacks was that the suit could not separate at the waist like other NASA suits, you had to enter the suit from the backpack. As with all hard-shell and semi-rigid suits, it is heavier than a soft suit (59 kilograms).
NASA decided against further development of the Mark III, for whatever reasons.
An innovative alternative approach is the Mechanical Counter Pressure (MCP) Suit. Instead of trying to hold your body intact with air pressure, it holds it in with spandex. It sounds crazy but it just might be crazy enough to work.
To recap, Skintight Suits:
- Must have lower pressure than the habitat module or the wearer cannot empty their lungs. This means the wearer needs an hour of pre-breathing or they will suffer the Bends. Higher pressure also increases the risk of catastrophic failure of the helmet, i.e., shooting off like a champagne cork and killing the wearer.
- In case of emergency, when there is no time for pre-breathing, NASA helpfully directs the astronauts to gulp aspirin, so they can work in spite of the agonizing pain
- The breathing mix will be close to pure oxygen, with a higher fire risk.
- Suit encumbrance only increases the energy cost to do various tasks by +20%, compared to the +400% of soft suits and the astronomical increase of hard-shell suits.
- Suit punctures result in bruises on the wearer's skin, instead of certain death.
- Skintight suits are the most inexpensive of all the space suits, about $60,000 US in 2005 dollars.
- It tends to grab male wearers uncomfortably in the crotch.
A skin-tight suit of high tech cloth exerts pressure over the rocketeer's body to provide pressure. A bubble helmet with oxygen supply allows one to breathe. Open pores in the suit actually allow the body to be cooled by perspiration. Tears will cause bruising to the skin, but are not as lethal as they are on a conventional suit. The suit can be quickly put on. They do not interfere as much with movement (+20% energy expenditure, compared with +400% for a NASA suit). And you can store them by folding them up and putting them inside the bubble helmet. The back pack is still bulky, though.
They do need some care in design, though. Any concave areas on the body that the suit does not hug will bulge out under internal body pressure until it fills the void (i.e., your armpits will become armhills). Putty or fluid filled bladders will be needed to prevent this. Care must be taken around those nether regions, the small of the back, and in certain locations of the female chest. Male wearers will need a rather sophisticated cup to cover the genitals. Even with the cup, the suit will tend to grab male wearers uncomfortably in the crotch.
And upon entering vacuum, one will have an instant attack of dire flatulence (aka High-altitude flatus expulsion or HAFE). Don't be polite, let it out right away or you may damage your intestines.
There may be a length of tubing added along the seams of the arms, legs, and torso. The suit will be relaxed for easy dressing, then the tubing will be pressurized to put tension on the fabric (This was used in the g-suits worn by early jet pilots). The tubing will automatically pressurize when the helmet is put on and pressured up.
This used to be a standard feature of partial-(body) pressure suits.
A more advanced design uses a strip of "shape metal alloy'. An applied voltage can toggle the metal strip between expanded and contracted.
Unlike other types of space suits, the helmets for skintight suits require something called a "neck dam." This goes around the neck, and tries to keep an air-tight seal. Otherwise the helmet shoots off like a champagne cork and all the air in the helmet will spray out.
I'm sure the neck dam will be the part of the suit that will cause designers the most headaches. I personally would be in favor of straps that go from the neck dam and loop around ones arm around the armpits, but I'm no expert.
In The Millennial Project Savage suggests that light tungsten armor plates be worn over the suit to give some anti-radiation protection (this would only be needed in high radiation areas, like the Van Allen belts).
A minimal version of the skintight suit can be developed for everyday wear inside a spacecraft, i.e., a Partial-(body) Skintight pressure-suit. In cases of emergency air pressure loss, all you'd need is an oxygen mask and earplugs to survive for hours (This was used in Jerry Pournelle's "Tinker". The suit was worn like long johns under a coverall. The coverall is due to the fact that the suit is about as modest as wearing a coat of paint.).
Amusingly, the skintight suit made an appearance in a 1995 novel and anime television series called Rocket Girls. Maybe not so surprisingly, Japanese media in general is noted for its high standards of scientific accuracy. In this case the anime series had JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency) and real-life Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki as technical advisors.
The fictitious Solomon Space Association is developing the low-mass suits since their anemic one-lung LS-5 rocket can barely lift itself off the launch pad, let alone any payload. In a further desperate attempt to save on mass, they are reduce to using 16 year old girls as astronauts (which is a predictable development for a Japanese anime). They only weigh 38 kilograms, instead of the sixty-odd kilograms of the adult male astronauts. They take up less room in the control cabin as well.
These are science fictional ultra-high-tech space suits powered by handwavium. The accuracy of space suits in science fiction was very much hit or miss. The low budget show Space Academy had "Life Support Bracelets" and the Star Trek Animated series had force-field based "Life Support Belts" as a cheapskate way to avoid the special effect expense of renting or drawing an actual space suit.
Harry Ross Lunar Space-Suit for the British Interplanetary Society (1949)
There are a few details here.
Goodrich engineer Russell Colley was trying design a suit that would bend at the elbow and knee against an internal pressure of 32 kiloPascals. His breakthrough insight came when he saw a Tomato Hornworm caterpillar. Blasted thing could bend 90 degrees, but obviously its internal pressure did not change (i.e., it didn't swell up anywhere). From this observation Colley invented constant-volume joints. Which is why these were called Tomato Worm Suits, and why the joints look like the Michelin Man.
This was not a space suit so much as a high-altitude aircraft pilot pressure suit. But for science fiction artist it was close enough. Much of the details of the real suit are available in patent 2,954,562.
Wernher von Braun spacesuit design from First Men to the Moon (1959)
This popularized the infamous tentacle gloves, which science fiction artist were quick to copy.
The crew of a combat spacecraft in battle probably will not wear a soft, hard-shell, or semi-rigid suit during battle. This is for the same reasons that the crew of a military submarine do not wear SCUBA gear in battle even though they too are in a craft surrounded by countless miles of unbreathable stuff while being shot at. It gets in the way.
Or a skintight + partial-(body) hybrid pressure-suit. This might be so unencumbered that it could be used as everday wear. Then if the habitat module loses pressure all you'd need is an oxygen mask and earplugs to survive for a few hours.
Or then again, I may not know what the heck I am talking about:
Current NASA space suits take about 45 minutes to put on, though that does include the time it takes to don the water-cooled undergarments. But not including 110 minutes for the Slow Motion Hokey Pokey
The Russian space program was working on a space suit called the Orlan (Орлан "sea eagle") that could be donned in five minutes flat. The backpack PLSS swung open like a door allowing the astronaut to step inside (it still take a while to put on the water cooled long-johns).
In 1980 the Russian space program realized that the rear entry door space suit could be used as a low mass airlock. Instead of a huge room with two air-tight doors, all you need is a hole in the hull the size of the PLSS with an airtight inner hatch cover. This is called a "Suitport".
The suit is outside of the spacecraft or whatever, only the PLSS is inside. The cosmonaut slips into the suit, a helper shuts the PLSS door and covers it with the airtight inner hatch cover. The cosmonaut is outside of the habitat module and can conduct EVA activities. The Russians patented the idea in 1980, and NASA patented it in 1987. In some designs the helper is replaced by an external hand level that the EVA astronaut flips to open/close the suit lock.
As an additional advantage, this system avoids enviromental contamination. Astronauts will not track into the lunar base any lung-destroying lunar dust. By the same token, Terran bacteria will not be allowed to get on the surface of a Mars planetary suit, and thereby contaminate the Martian environment. The only part of the suit that can do any contamination is the PLSS, the rest of the suit never enters the hab module.
There is still the problem of the pressure difference habitat module and the space suit. But a pre-breathing room is a lot less of a mass penalty than a full airlock.
The ESA Aurora CDF Mars mission looked into using suitports on their Mars lander:
And in Clarke's "The Haunted Spacesuit" aka "Who's There?" they chant "FORB" for Fuel, Oxygen, Radio, Batteries.
While wearing a space suit in vacuum, the iron-clad rule is The Buddy System. There are many mishaps that are trivial if you have a companion but fatal if you don't. Imagine that your suit springs a slow leak on your back just where you can't reach it with a repair patch. Oops.
In cases of emergency, two space suited people can "cross-connect" their oxygen supplies. This is generally done when one of them runs out of breathable gas, the other shares their oxygen until they get to shelter.
A dangerous space suit emergency is if the suit springs a leak. Dimitri SIyde tells me that according to the NASA EMU LSS/SSA Data Book the “free volume” inside a space suit is from 0.04 to 0.06 cubic meters (the gas volume of the anthropometric clearance between the crewmember and the inside of the suit including the PLSS oxygen ventilating circuit). A hole 0.6 cm in diameter has a hole area of 0.28 square centimeters. As long as the suit's air tanks can keep up the loss the pressure won't drop. But once the tanks are empty, the pressure will drop by anoxia levels in a mere 27.9 seconds. Then you get to learn first-hand the many ways that space kills you.
Remember that Skintight suits are immune to this, unless it is your helmet that suffers the breech. If the suit part pops a hole it just gives that part of your skin a bruise.
A critical piece of equipment is some kind of emergency pressure patch. Something the astronaut can stick on to the hole to temporarily halt the pressure leak, or at least long enough to get into a habitat module. This is yet another demonstration of the need for a Buddy System. Not only will a buddy probably be a little more calm than you when applying a patch since it isn't their breathing mix that is escaping into space, but there are some possible suit breech sites that a solo astronaut just cannot reach by themselves.
I have seen some science fiction novels where spacesuits have some sort of self-sealing ability, analogous to World War II self-sealing fuel tanks. They make vague references to a fluid layer in the suit which turns solid when exposed to vacuum. I am not sure how practical this is. Others invoke some kind of unobtainium magic-tech nanotechnology where zillions of microscopic machines somehow repair the breech.
In The Expanse, asteroid ice miners who daily run the risk of suit punctures (or even losing limbs) wear special suits equipped with a series of automatic tourniquets. If an ice shard slices your hand off, the tourniquet in your forearm detects the local pressure drop, and seals the suit to your stump. Then you (or your buddies) can get you into an airlock, and into sickbay where hopefully your medical insurance will cover a prosthetic hand.
In the game Starfighter Inc. they have a more extreme system for their fighter pilots. If your body is damaged but your brain is intact, the Headshot Pilot Preservation System kicks in. The helmet decapitates and flash freezes the pilot's skull. Then it is ejected in the direction of a nearby friendly vessel for retrieval. At a medical center it can be revived and grafted on to a cloned body. An enemy ship might try to intercept the flying head, so they can ransom it back.
When you gotta go, you gotta go. A sudden urgent need to urinate or defecate when you are in a space suit during an EVA is a major problem.
NASA became aware of the need for space diapers on May 5, 1961. Freedom 7 was about to launch with astronaut Alan Shepard. NASA figured there was no need for a potty break, er, ah, "bladder evac" since the flight was only going to take 15 minutes. Alas there were several delays so poor Alan was on the pad for eight hours. He had to ask ground control for permission to pee in his suit, which was granted. Shorted out some of his medical sensors, though.
For the Gemini and Apollo programs they had a system for urination only. It was functionally equivalent to a condom (a "cuff") attached to a tube. The tube drained into a containment bag through a one-way valve. The cuff fit had to be snug or there would be dangerous leakage. The cuffs came in three sizes.
The space suit designers demonstrated a stunning ignorance of macho astronauts when they labeled the sizes "small", "medium", and "large".
Predictably, when asked which size they needed, all the testosterone-poisoned Right Stuff astronauts answered "Large, of course."
After a few nasty incidents of space suits filling up with urine due to poorly fitting sheaths, the technicians re-named the sizes "large", "gigantic", and "humongous."
Unfortunately the best technology NASA currently has to offer is the "Maximum Absorbency Garment" (MAG). Which is basically a high-tech diaper. The MAG is full of sodium polyacrylate, which can absorb 300 times its weight in water. The MAG can hold about two liters of urine, blood, and/or feces. It was a challenge since conventional incontinence pants require gravity in order to operate.
Astronauts in free fall tend to have lots of urine to void when they finally feel the urge to go. Under normal gravity urine collects at the bottom of the bladder, triggering the urge when the bladder is one-third full. But in zero gee, urine in the bladder is floating around. The urge only comes when the bladder is almost totally full, causing pressure on the sides. Which is a problem since that much urine can press the urethra shut, making it hard to urinate. Astronauts are advised to schedule regualar pee breaks even if they do not feel the need.
Or the doc will have to open the first aid kit and break out the Foley catheter. That is not a threat, it is a promise.
The first time the condom and bag device was used in space was in John Glenn's 1962 orbital flight. He voided a full 27 ounces of urine in one go, which is about seven ounces more than the capacity of the average human bladder.
Once people are suited up, it does become hard to tell who is who. In Destination Moon, there were four spacemen, and each had a uniquely colored suit. Kind of like colored tooth-brushes, a different color for each family member. But this won't work if you have more than a few spacemen, er, spacepeople. The person's name stenciled in large letter across the front and back is a possibility.
In Piers Anthony's The Kirlian Quest, he notes that this problem has occurred before: knights in armor are similarly inconveniently anonymous. The solution is coat of arms and heraldry. The knights wear their coats of arms on their shields, tabards, and horse barding, to identify themselves.
In other words, heraldry was a medieval form of an Identification Friend Or Foe system.
The British College of Arms was founded in 1484 to regulate heraldic coats of arms. A new noble would hire a herald to create a brand new coat of arms. The noble would suggest feats and other things they were proud of to the herald, who would try to depict them symbolically. The proposed heraldic "device" (coat of arms) is then submitted to the College of Arms to be evaluated. It is compared with all existing heraldic devices. The new device must have at least one major and one minor point of visual difference from those already registered. Otherwise it would be too easy to confuse the two devices in the heat of battle. Mistaking a foe for a friend could be fatal. It is also a good idea if the device can be recognized at a distance.
As an amusing side note, a heraldic device has a "blazon". This is a verbal description of the heraldic device done in heraldic terminology. If you give a herald a blazon, they can reproduce the original device even if they had never seen it before. Just remember that the "blazon" is the verbal description and "to emblazon" means to draw, paint or otherwise make a graphic representation of the device (called an "emblazonment").
If you find any illustrations of the game Warhammer 40,000, you will quickly see that the Space Marines are big fans of heraldry. Even though you can generally idenifty the bad Marines by the tentacles, weeping open sores, and other Marks of Chaos. Otherwise, if the opponents look like skeletons they are Necrons; if they are tall, skinny, and distainful they are Eldar; if they are green with tusks they are Orks; and if they look like Giger's Alien xenomorph on bad LSD and are eating everything they are Tyranids. They are all enemies, so the basic rule is if it does not look like a Space Marine, shoot it with your bolter.
2020 addenda: this was the year that the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Many wore protective face masks, which did interfere a person being recognized. And thousands of cottage industries suddenly sprang up, offering face masks with a variety of fancy patterns and even customizable designs. Everything old is new again, this is remarkably like the custom painted breathing masks from Heinlein's novel Red Planet.
For strict safely, static lines or safety lines are mandatory. The line will have to be made of special materials, since most terrestrial ropes and cables will turn glass-like and shatter in vacuum.
The spacecraft should have plenty of small steel rings bolted at regular intervals over the hull for spacemen to attach their safety lines to. Without a static line, an astronaut who manages to get both magnetic boots separated from the hull will suddenly find themself on a slow impromptu tour of the solar system. If their spouses are real lucky the bodies might actually be eventually recovered for burial.
In the real world NASA generally always insisted that astronauts performing a spacewalk be tethered to the spacecraft or station. The first NASA untethered spacewalk was Bruce McCandless II's little jaunt with NASA MMU in Challenger mission STS-41-B.
Another useful item is a "line throwing gun". This allows one to shoot a safety line from one spacecraft to another.
There was an impressive use of tethers in episode #4 of The Expanse.
Our heroes are in the hangar bay of the Martian battleship Donnager. The ship has been boarded by hostiles, the captain is poised to scuttle, and our heroes had better get into the escape ship fast unless they want to die in the scuttling.
The Donnager is under 1 g acceleration so there is artficial gravity. Our heroes have been instructed to turn off their boot magnets and run as fast as they can across the gantry into the escape ship, while dodging gunfire.
Alas our heroes Naomi and Holden are only half way across the gantry when the Donnager is forced to turn off its engines. They are suddenly in free fall, and float helpessly away from the gantry.
But Holden is a seasoned, cool-thinking, steely-eyed spaceman. He grabs Namoi, attaches a tether connecting the two, then kicks Naomi upwards away from the gantry. Newton's Third Law to the rescue! Holden recoils to the gantry, his magnetic boots latch on, then he uses the tether to haul Naomi down to the gantry.
Brilliant use of a tether, and a astonishing use of real physics in a TV show.
Things get real nasty if the ship is a tumbling pigeon or otherwise rotates to provide artificial gravity. The poor EVA spacemen have to swing from hand-hold to hand-hold like trapezes artists. From their viewpoint, the spacecraft is overhead and below is a long fall to infinity. For details read Heinlein's short story "Ordeal in Space".
Astronauts also have to watch what they say. There is no air in space, so unless you are touching helmets together, you cannot talk with others without a radio. But while speaking on Terra means your voice becomes fainter with distance, over a radio it will be loud and clear out to the limit of the radio's range. This means cursing under your breath or muttering behind somebody's back will not work. There might be several channels to allow a bit of privacy, or if several conversations are going on at once.
Sometime people on a space walk want to communicate but do not want to use radio. This can be either due to the sad fact that one or both of the radio sets are out of order, or if the two have a strong motive not to broadcast their conversation to everybody in the universe within radio range.
- Some SF novels suggest that two space suited people might turn off their raidos, and touch helmets. The theory is that the sound of the conversation will be conducted through the contact between helmets. However, others maintain that the area of contact will be so small (since the helmets are basically spherical) that no audible sound will manage to pass.
- In Poul Anderson's TAU ZERO, he suggests astronauts will learn how to read lips. In the weaving sheds and cotton mills of Lancashire, workers developed an exaggerated form of speech and gesture called mee-mawing to facilitate lip-reading.
- They can use a vacuum-rated marker pen to write words or Spacer's Runic.
- Morse Code is another possibility, via flashlight or a mirror reflecting Sol. If they are connected by something that will transmit vibration (like a girder) they can use tap codes (Morse won't work with percussion because while you can tap a "dot" you cannot tap a "dash").
- In The Expanse Belters use specialized hand gestures similar to those used by scuba divers and harbor crain longshoremen. These can also be used like Emoticons to supplement radio communication, e.g., using a fist to make a "nod-your-head-yes" gesture (non-verbal so radio doesn't send it, and mostly invisible unless you can see inside their helment). In The Expanse, Belters tend to use hand gestures even when not wearing a space suit, shrugging with their hands instead of their shoulders for instance.
- In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, belters do NOT perform any hand gestures at all. This is because Niven's belters fly in very small spacecraft called "singleships". The habitat module is only slightly larger than a coffin.
"You noticed a habit of mine once. I never make gestures. All Belters have that trait. It's because on a small mining ship you could hit something waving your arms around. Something like the airlock button."
"Sometimes it's almost eerie. You don't move for minutes at a time."
The Warriors (1966)
- Actually, NASA is looking into creating some "official" hand signals. The link shows some proposed signals.
- In the Fate Space Toolkit RPG, spacesuit operating systems can be controlled by gesture commands based hand signals. A system of hand signals is called a "fist". Different asteroid colonies often have different fists, much like dialects or even totally different languags.
- One can use deaf sign language or a manually coded oral language. It is difficult to do full blown sign language in a space suit. Sign languages have complicated, nuanced signs that would get lost by the highly restricted motion of the suits. Only big motions would be visible.
- If the two are connected by a tether, they can use scuba diver rope signals.
- Sawmill workers had their own specialized hand signal language, because the noise in the mill is too loud for speaking. Something similar is used in steel pipe mills, where even radios are worthless due to the background noise.
Pete Wildsmith had a couple of good points about sign language in space suits:
- At long distances, sign language or hand gestures may be difficult to see. A flag semaphore dialect may be developed for such cases. The signals are indicated by holding one's two arms (with or without flags, lit wands, paddles, or other optical devices) at various angles to the body. Since arms are bigger than hands, the signal is distinguishable at greater distances.
- Both sign language and semaphore will be limited by conservation of angular momentum. Meaning if the person does not have their feet anchored while in free-fall, moving their arms will cause the entire body to rotate.
Astronauts may also need a "beeper". This is a low powered radar used to locate small objects nearby (like that zero-recoil wrench you let go of "just for a minute" which seems to have run away). You wave it around until is starts beeping (heard over your suit radio). As you approach the object the beep rate increases.
If you are doing space construction work or asteroid mining, you'll need a radar range-and-rate gun. This is similar to the radar guns the highway patrol uses to catch speeders, but it also tells the range. It gives you the precise distance to the object and the current closing rate between you and the object, using radar for range and doppler radar for closing rate.
This is important because it is almost impossible to tell the range to an object by eye in space. And even more impossible to tell how fast it is approaching or receding from you. This is a standard instrument on spacecraft and space taxis but not on a space suit.
Sometimes astronauts have to repair or service items that are not directly connected to their spacecraft. Breaking contact with the ship is possible by using an MMU, but is always risky. A useful compromise is using the cherry picker concept, having the astronaut's feet attached to a aerial work platform based on the spacecraft, and the platform's arm maneuvers to position the astronaut.
As one adds more gadgets and attachments to a space suit, it gradually morphs into a tiny spaceship. It starts with spring-loaded broomsticks and picks up speed with the addition of tiny attitude jets and maneuvering rockets. As a parallel development, a rocket engine with a skeletal frame to hold astronauts is the first "space taxi". When a space suit is massive enough that one climbs into it instead of putting it on like clothing, equipped with mechanical arms and waldoes, you suddenly have a space pod. Then if the pod grows to the size of a baby spaceship, but with massive over-sized engines, you finally have a space tug.
A broomstick is a spring loaded gizmo used by astronauts to launch themselves from place to place, and to bring themselves to a stop upon arrival.
While engaging in extra-vehicular activity, our space-suited rocketeers may use a "broomstick", or some kind of small jets (a Manned Maneuvering Unit or MMU). NASA has also developed a nitrogen-gas propelled unit that fits on the backpack, called the Simplified Aid for Extravehicular Activity Rescue (SAFER). The SAFER can help an astronaut return to the shuttle or station in the event that they gets separated from the spacecraft. SAFER has a deltaV capacity of 3 m/s.
Many early designs of spacesuits for use in free fall were lacking legs. This simplifies the design. This gradually becomes a hard suit which allows an astronaut to work in a pressurized environment and so avoid the bends.
A space taxi is a short ranged orbit to orbit vehicle used to carry astronauts and small amounts of cargo. At its simplest, it is a frame that astronauts attach themselves to, with a rocket engine at one end. More complicated taxis have an enclosed hull which may or may not be pressurized.
Do keep in mind that the direction of "down" will appear to be in the same direction the rocket exhaust shoots. The various illustrations are very misleading, making it look like the people are riding a taxi like it was a witch's broomstick. In reality it is more like riding a stripper's pole.
ORION SPACE TAXI
|Orion Space Taxi|
|Specific Impulse||450 s|
|Exhaust Velocity||4,500 m/s|
|Wet Mass||1,584 kg|
|Dry Mass||759 kg|
|Payload||136 kg (2 people)|
|Diameter||1 m wide|
|General Dynamics 2-Man Space Taxi|
|Specific Impulse||450 s|
|Exhaust Velocity||4,500 m/s|
|Wet Mass||361 kg|
|Dry Mass||155 kg|
|Propellant Mass||206 kg|
In this document about Orion drive spacecraft, they mention a space taxi. It carries two crew members, has a hardware mass of 623 kilograms, and a propellant mass of 825 kilograms. As near as I can measure from the diagram, it can be approximated as a cylinder with a height of two meters and a radius of 0.5 meters, with a hemisphere of radius 0.5 meters on each end.
This gives it an internal volume of 2 m3. Assuming it has chemical propulsion, the propellant would take up about 0.8 cubic meters, and the two crew would take up 0.14 cubic meters. Carrying two crew, it would have a mass ratio of about 2, and thus a deltaV of about 3,120 m/s.
In Volume 10: "Space Age in Fiscal Year 2001". Proceedings of the Fourth AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium, 15-16 March 1966, Washinton DC Krafft Ehricke has a diagram featuring what appears to be the same space taxi.
General Dynamics had designs for one and two-man space taxis that again appear to be the same ones. The two man version was described to have a dry mass of 155 kg and 206 kg of propellant (probably space storage hpergolic propellants). This would give it a mass ratio of 2.3 and thus a deltaVof about 3,750 m/s. For more details refer to US Spacecraft Projects #01 by Scott Lowther.
MARQUARDT SPACE SLED
A helpful reader named Yoel Mizrahi (יואל מזרחי) contacted me and told me about the Marquardt Space Sled, and supplied some images.
Not much is known about this artifact. It was made by the Marquardt Corporation in the 1960 as part of a project to develop an EVA maneuvering unit. It was tested in 1965. It was shelved in favor of a project that eventually developed NASA's Manned Maneuvering Unit. It is currently on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
The unit had a length of about 2.1 meters and a mass of about 91 kilograms.
Expert Scott Lowther was puzzled by the unit. He guesses it was part of the MOL project. He notes that it is unclear if the device was actually intended to be used in space, or in an earth-bound test mounted on air bearings or something. The seat, for example, is not constructed out of materials which could withstand the harsh solar radiation or vacuum of space. The chair also cannot accommodate a space suit's back pack.
And exactly where are the rocket thrusters?
Presumably the huge sphere up front is a high-pressure gas tank, and the thrusters were cold-gas jets. In which case it is not clear what, if any, advantages this holds over a backpack style MMU.
But Mr. Lowther is of the opinion that if it was uprated to use monopropellant (or even bipropellant) then you'd have an honest-to-Johnny space motorcycle.
Michel Van figures the unit was intended to be used in the USAF "Vomit Comet" as a proof of concept, which would explain the seat anomalies.
Sometimes space taxies are put together out of odds and ends. This can be done by teenagers raiding a spacecraft boneyard (much like greasers in the 1950s would make an automobile out of parts scavenged from a junk yard) or by survivors of a spacecraft disaster who need to slap together some kind of escape craft.
Sometimes the jury-rig is straightforward, where one takes modular components from three wrecked spaceships and snap them together into one un-wrecked ship. Sometimes it is more cut-and-try, where you start with a surviving engine module and weld a habitat module on top. Sometimes weapons can be repurposed, i.e., taking a missile and replacing the warhead with a pilot's chair. Or turning a gun turret with a railgun into an impromptu cabin with built-in mass-driver thruster (that actually would not take much work, assuming the power supply can be attached).
And sometimes it has to be real creative, where the engineer starts from first principles and brainstorms a clever way to use Newton's Third Law to create thrust. Such creativity is needed when the poor engineer does not have much to start with, i.e., all the engines are utterly ruined or there are no engines available. The solution commonly takes the form of tanks of pressurized gas or boilers used to convert water into steam.
A futuristic teenager making their own space taxi out of scrap heap parts would have similar advantages to a 1950s teen building a car. It is a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a new or used car (which is a crucial point for the economically disadvantaged). The teen will learn marketable mechanic/engineer skills. And they will also obtain the classic advantage of Maker Culture: "I made it so I can fix it." The main draw-back is that it can take several years to actually make a functional car/taxi.
Peripherally related are some children's science fantasy novels where kids build a spaceship in their garage, such as The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Rusty's Space Ship, and Explorers. These generally have the format of the kids making the body of the ship, while some extraterrestrial helpfully provides the propulsion and life support. A borderline case is the TV show Salvage 1.
One of the most important things to get right when making a jury-rigged space taxi is to be sure the engine's thrust axis passes through the taxi's center of gravity. Otherwise the taxi will suffer from the dread horror of rocket tumble. The taxi will move in a savage spiral path. In extreme cases it won't move at all, merely spin in place at high velocity.
In the latter case, may I suggest that the disaster be referred to as a "Catherine wheel". Because the space taxi will resemble the Catherine wheel firework, while the pilot will resemble the Catherine wheel torture device.
Even if the taxi is balanced with no passengers or payload, you have to load it carefully. Fill out a center-of-gravity and moment-of-inertia chart unless you are St. Catherine.
This is an emergency lunar escape vehicle concept, in case an Apollo Lunar Module crashed upon landing. It was designed to be assembled from various parts canibalized from the wreck. Note that in the two-man version, the pilot gets an acceleration chair, but the poor second astronaut is slung under the chair by straps. You can read more about this here, and here.
A space pod is a small pressurized vehicle with one or more waldoes or mechanical arms. They are often used for space construction and maintenance. In the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, they were referred to as "EVA pods." In Wernher von Braun and Disney's Man In Space series, they were called "bottle suits." They are also known as "closed-cabin cherry picker", "manned autonomous work system", and the ever popular "man-in-a-can."
One of their main advantages over a soft space suit is that they solve the depressurization problem. Another is they can be radiation-hardened, to protect the astronaut from cosmic rays and solar storms.
There are some designs that carry more than one astronaut, these are in the gray area between space pods and space tugs.
This is from Launching and Alightment Systems for Aero-Space Vehicles by the Wright Air Development Division. In the middle part of the report, they figure that it will be a big problem for two spacecraft to rendezvous safely. So they looked into all sort of possibilites.
For maximum protection of the astronauts, it is best to help them avoid leaving the spacecraft at all. They can stay in the relative safety of the habitat module while using waldo robot arms or free-flying drone pods to get the job done.
Waldoes are also used for berthing a spacecraft (not docking, berthing).
Mobile Servicing System (MSS)
The MSS is composed of three components — the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), known as Canadarm2 (successor to the original Canadarm), the Mobile Remote Servicer Base System (MBS) and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM, also known as Dextre or Canada hand).
Canadarm2 is usually attached to the MBS, which moves along a rail. However, Canadarm2 can detach and literally walk on the surface of the station to where it is needed, moving end-over-end like a giant metal inch worm. Either end can plug into special sockets ("power data grapple fixtures") built at strategic spots on the surface of the station. The only draw-back is that Canadarm2 cannot carry any equipment while in inch-worm mode, hence the MBS.
The main limitation is that each "step" must end at a socket, but this is due to power and control signal issues. A more advanced version might be self contained enough to not require sockets, just hand-holds or other protrusions that it could grab.
Canadarm 2 is quite large, 17.6 meters (57.7 feet) long when fully extended. It can move payloads with a mass up to 116 metric tons.
This is From Nuclear Shuttle Systems Definition Study Phase III Final Report Volume II Concept and Feasibility Analysis Part A - System Evaluation and Capability. Thanks to Erin Schmidt for bringing this report to my attention.
DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program is to develop technologies that would enable cooperative inspection and servicing satellites in GEO.
1964 Lockheed unmanned SCHMOO drone: "Space Cargo Handler and Manipulator for Orbital Operations"
G.E. Remote Manipulator Spacecraft (1968)