The Evolution of the Space Suit

Ever since Alan Shepard's history-making flight in 1961, NASA astronauts have relied on spacesuits to help them work and keep them safe. From the shiny silver of the Mercury suit to the orange "pumpkin suits" of shuttle crew, the suits have served as personal spacecraft, protecting explorers during launch and entry, while working on the International Space Station, or walking on the moon.

Just as NASA has a new spacecraft, Orion, new suits will be needed to protect future astronauts as they return to the moon and eventually Mars.

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Project Mercury

Astronaut on moon
Steve Bronstein/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

This is Gordon Cooper, one of NASA's original seven astronauts chosen in 1959, posing in his  flight suit.

When NASA's Mercury program began, the spacesuits kept the designs of earlier pressurized flight suits used in high altitude aircraft. However, NASA added a material called Mylar which gave the suit strength, and the ability to withstand extreme temperatures.

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Project Mercury

Glenn at the Cape
Glenn at the Cape. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his silver Mercury spacesuit during pre- flight training activities at Cape Canaveral. On February 20, 1962 Glenn lifted off into space aboard his Mercury Atlas (MA-6) rocket and became the first American to orbit the Earth. After orbiting the Earth 3 times, Friendship 7 landed in the Atlantic Ocean 4 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds later, just East of Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas. Glenn and his capsule were recovered by the Navy Destroyer Noa, 21 minutes after splashdown.

Glenn is the only astronaut to fly in space wearing both a Mercury and a shuttle suit.

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Project Gemini Space Suit

Project Gemini Space Suit
Project Gemini Space Suit. NASA

Future moonwalker Neil Armstrong in his Gemini G-2C training suit. When Project Gemini came along, Astronauts found it difficult to move in the Mercury spacesuit when it was pressurized; the suit itself was not designed for space walking so some changes had to be made. Unlike the "soft" Mercury suit, the whole Gemini suit was made to be flexible when pressurized.

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Project Gemini Space Suit

Gemini astronauts in full pressure suits
Gemini astronauts in full pressure suits. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

Gemini astronauts learned that cooling their suit with air did not work very well. Often, the astronauts were overheated and exhausted from space walks and their helmets would fog up on the inside from excessive moisture. Prime crew for the Gemini 3 mission are photographed in full length portraits in their space suits. Viril I. Grissom (left) and John Young are seen with the portable suit air conditioners connected and their helmets on; four  astronauts are seen in full pressure suits. From left to right are John Young and Virgil I. Grissom, the prime crew for Gemini 3; as well as Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford, their backup crew.

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First American Spacewalk

Astronaut Edward White during first EVA performed during Gemini 4 flight
Astronaut Edward White during first EVA performed during Gemini 4 flight. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot for the Gemini-Titan 4 space flight, floats in zero gravity of space. The extravehicular activity was performed during the third revolution of the Gemini 4 spacecraft. White is attached to the spacecraft by a 25-ft. umbilical line and a 23-ft. tether line, both wrapped in gold tape to form one cord. In his right hand White carries a Hand-Held Self-Maneuvering Unit (HHSMU). The visor of his helmet is gold plated to protect him from the unfiltered rays of the sun.

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Project Apollo

Space suit A-3H-024 with Lunar Excursion Module astronaut restraint harness
Space suit A-3H-024 with Lunar Excursion Module astronaut restraint harness. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

With the Apollo program, NASA knew that astronauts would have to walk on the Moon. So space suit designers came up with some creative solutions based on information they collected from the Gemini program.

Engineer Bill Peterson fits test pilot Bob Smyth in space suit A-3H-024 with the Lunar Excursion Module astronaut restraint harness during suit evaluation study.

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Project Apollo

Astronaut Alan Shepard undergoes suiting up operations during Apollo 14
Astronaut Alan Shepard undergoes suiting up operations during Apollo 14. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

Spacesuits used by the Apollo astronauts were no longer air-cooled. A nylon undergarment mesh allowed the astronaut's body to be cooled with water, similar to the way a radiator cools a car's engine.

Additional layers of fabric allowed for better pressurization and additional heat protection.

Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr. undergoes suiting up operations at the Kennedy Space Center during the Apollo 14 prelaunch countdown. Shepard is the commander of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission.

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Moon Walk

Astronaut Edwin Aldrin on Lunar Surface
Astronaut Edwin Aldrin on Lunar Surface. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

A single spacesuit was developed that had add-ons for moon walking.

For walking on the Moon, the spacesuit was supplemented with additional gear - like gloves with rubber fingertips, and a portable life support backpack that contained oxygen, carbon-dioxide removal equipment and cooling water. The spacesuit and backpack weighed 82 kg on Earth, but only 14 kg on the moon due to its lower gravity.

This photo is of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walking on the lunar surface.

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Space Shuttle Suit

Space Shuttle Suit
Space Shuttle Suit. NASA

When the first shuttle flight, STS-1, lifted off on April 12, 1981, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen wore the ejection escape suit modeled here. It's a modified version of a U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suit.

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Space Shuttle Suit

Space Shuttle Suit
Space Shuttle Suit.
The familiar orange launch and entry suit worn by shuttle crews, nicknamed the "pumpkin suit" for its color. The suit includes the launch and entry helmet with communications gear, parachute pack and harness, life raft, life preserver unit, gloves, oxygen manifold and valves, boots and survival gear.
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Floating Free

Views of the extravehicular activity during STS 41-B
Views of the extravehicular activity during STS 41-B. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)
In February 1984, shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first astronaut to float in space untethered, thanks to a jetpack-like device called the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU).

MMUs are no longer used, but astronauts now wear a similar backpack device in case of emergency.

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Future Concept

Constellation Space Suit Design
Constellation Space Suit Design. NASA

Engineers working to design a new spacesuit for future missions have come up with a suit system that consists of 2 basic configurations that will be used for different tasks.

The orange suit is Configuration 1, which will be worn during launch, landing and - if necessary - sudden cabin depressurization events. It will also be used if a spacewalk must be performed in microgravity.

Configuration 2, the white suit, would be used during moonwalks for lunar exploration. Since Configuration 1 will be used in and around the vehicle only, it does not need the life support backpack that Configuration 2 uses - instead it will connect to the vehicle by umbilical.

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The Future

MK III Space Suit
MK III Space Suit. NASA
Dr. Dean Eppler wears the MK III advanced demonstration spacesuit during a 2002 field test of futuristic technology in Arizona. The MK III is an advanced demonstration suit being used to develop elements for future suits.
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The Future

Test Suit at Moses Lake, Washington
Test Suit at Moses Lake, Washington. NASA

With his back to a lunar truck concept, an Earth-bound astronaut captures the scene at Moses Lake, WA, during a lunar robot demonstration in June 2008. NASA centers across the country brought their latest concepts to the test site for a series of field tests based on mission-related activities for NASA's planned return to the Moon scenarios.

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The Future

Space Suit Prototypes
Space Suit Prototypes. NASA

Astronauts, engineers and scientists wearing prototype spacesuits, driving prototype lunar rovers and simulating scientific work as part of NASA's demonstration of concepts for living and working on the lunar surface.

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Greene, Nick. "The Evolution of the Space Suit." ThoughtCo, Jun. 28, 2017, Greene, Nick. (2017, June 28). The Evolution of the Space Suit. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "The Evolution of the Space Suit." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 17, 2017).