Spacesuits are handmade.

Plaster casts of Apollo Astronaut hands for custom gloves. Houston TX, 1968. (Gizmodo via Fresh Protons)

I’m a sucker for anything NASA, especially anything from the Apollo Program. I have been since I was a kid. After Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, my biggest childhood heroes were Buzz Aldrain and Niel Armstrong. So after I got over the cool high drama light on the image to the left, I realized these are the hands of Spacemen; more so; these are custom Glove forms for Astronauts.

Gloves are notoriously difficult to make and with Space Gloves you can easily Quadruple that difficulty. They are so problematic that NASA created a Glove X-Prize to challenge our American Brains to come up with a more functional Design.

Here’s the challenge in a nutshell: Astronauts work in a pressure free environment wearing inflated airbags for life support but need to handle small items with precision and dexterity. What’s so hard about that? Consider the nearly fatal first Space Walk in Human History:

On March 18th, 1965 Alexi Leonov donned his space suit and climbed out of the Voskhod 2 spacecraft’s airlock. Almost immediately, problems arose. The Cosmonauts practiced extensively in the space suits in zero gravity conditions and thought they were prepared for most emergency situations. What Leonov was not prepared for was how the suit actually performed in a zero pressure environment: After stepping into the vacuum of space, the suit behaved differently. The pressure differential was so extreme that the suit inflated wildly to the point where his hands and feet began pulling out of his boots and gloves. He was unable to operate the airlock because of an inability to flex his fingers. It was a bad day at the office. Luckily he fought through the situation with determination and intelligence and doing some heroics that were borderline insane.  (read the whole story here. Spoiler alert: He survived.)

Edward H. White - EVA - June 3, 1965

The Gemini missions addressed the spacewalk problem by adding more control to the personal atmosphere. Six layers of nylon and nomex  separate the individual from the vacuum of space. For NASA’s part, they figured out that you put the pressure around the individual, primarily, in the form of a wearable ‘bladder’ under the outer shell, connected to the suit, rather than having them wear a man shaped balloon shell like the Cosmonauts did.

I have to go back to this though: at least SIX layers of fabric, depending on model. Lets look at what we have: First, a climate controlling undergarment worn separately from the space suit, then the space suit, which has a base of a rubberized nylon bladder to maintain pressure, a linknet retaining layer to keep the bladder in place, an outer layer of white nomex that would hopefully keep high speed space particles from flying through the astronaut. In between all this were layers of mylar for insulation. The gloves were held in place so that they would not balloon up and render your hands useless.

The Apollo Astronauts were kind of a spoiled bunch. Everything was full custom. Measurements and molds were taken and the spacesuit was fitted specifically, hand tailored, no less, for the individual. So we have plaster casts of all their hands.

Space Gloves!

Our current Astronauts have been wearing a series of mix’n’match spacesuits that, while versatile, are still highly protective and technological. They are also a very large garment to wear or carry up into space. They are more of a ‘hard shell’ on top, less reliant on textiles than in the past, but still use quite a bit of specialized textile goodness – now with 14 layers of material just in the arm:

The spacesuit arm has 14 layers of material to protect the spacewalker. The liquid cooling and ventilation garment makes up the first three layers. On top of this garment is the bladder layer. It creates the proper pressure for the body. It also holds in the oxygen for breathing. The next layer holds the bladder layer to the correct shape around the astronaut’s body and is made of the same material as camping tents. The ripstop liner is the tear-resistant layer. The next seven layers are Mylar insulation and make the suit act like a thermos. The layers keep the temperature from changing inside. They also protect the spacewalker from being harmed by small, high-speed objects flying through space. The outer layer is made of a blend of three fabrics. One fabric is waterproof. Another is the material used to make bullet-proof vests. The third fabric is fire-resistant.

But the ongoing challenge continues: How to put humans into pressurized airbags in a pressure free environment and still give them enough range of motion to function? Our human skin is fragile enough on the earth’s surface, but put us in space and you have a lot of conditions to create: Maintain comfort, temperature, pressure, humidity, and mobility.

Professor Dava Newman at M.I.T. has been working towards a spacesuit that is more fashion forward and meets all of the needs of the Astronaut. She is developing a second skin for astronauts that looks more like technical athletic wear than a space suit. By using new textile technology, the Space Activity Suit is able to both allow mobility while keeping positive compression on the body. To me this sounds like a higher tech version of athletic compression recovery garments. It makes being an Astronaut look as accessible as going on a long bike ride. Something tells me we’re going to be seeing these garments on the Astro-tourists on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic long before the Astronauts are wearing them…

…looks like this is a topic that will be revisited. I didn’t really know where to go with this  post, and didn’t expect to dig into space suit technology. So. I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to some of this again later. Thanks for paying attention, if you did.

This entry was posted in Customization, Gloves, NASA, Space Suits, Textiles. Bookmark the permalink.

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