Spacesuits – Then and Now


From custom made suits to interchangeable parts, the spacesuit has been a constantly evolving lifesaving apparatus for astronauts all around the world. Spacesuits are one of the main components that keep astronauts safe in the massive void of the unknown – or otherwise, outer space. Having multiple parts, some complicated and some not so complicated, the spacesuit has undergone extensive testing to make sure it does its job right. The last thing an astronaut in space should worry about is a faulty suit.

In 1961, a company named ILC Dover, Inc. started the design process of the spacesuit. The main goal of ILC was to design, develop and manufacture spacesuits that were affordable, comfortable, mobile, and most of all safe. The spacesuit is held in an “air-tight anthropomorphic structure called the Pressure Garment Assembly or PGA.” The suit houses the astronaut to keep the occupant protected from the extreme environments of space. Without the protection of the spacesuit, the astronaut would die.

In 1964, ILC began making and testing prototypes suits and by 1966 they were being delivered to the Apollo astronauts. Approximately 3/16” thick and 11 layers of material, it was one of a kind. This one of a kind spacesuit was only the beginning.

Mercury & Gemini Spacesuits

Starting from the beginning, the Mercury spacesuit was essentially an upgraded version of the United States Navy’s high altitude jet aircraft pressure suit. Made from nylon fabric coated with Neoprene, it protected the astronauts from the void of space while having a restraint outer layer of aluminized nylon. The Mercury suit being the first one ever made for space exploration was worn soft or unpressurized, serving as a backup for an event of cabin pressure loss.

For the Gemini missions, spacesuit designers turned to the United States Air Force. Instead of making the suit stiff like the Mercury ones, they added a pressure bladder and a link-net restraint making the suit more flexible when pressurized. This was only the beginning of the evolution of the spacesuit.

Mercury and Gemini spacesuits set the stage for the Apollo era.

Apollo Spacesuits

ILC made two configurations for the spacesuit, one which is the Intravehicular (IV) configuration and the Extravehicular (EV) configuration. The IV configuration is designated as CMP A7LB PGA while the EV configuration is designated as the EV A7LB PGA. CMP A7LB was worn by the Command Module Pilot while the EV A&B was worn by the crew commander and the Lunar Module Pilot.

EV A7LB PGA is the modified version that was to be used by the Skylab astronauts.

These suits are completely customizable to the astronaut. Using the same basic materials and adding in moveable joints and backup life support system allowed the astronauts to move more freely and also provided oxygen. For the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 space suits, they added more flexibility into the suit allowing the astronauts to comfortably use the lunar rover vehicle. Just one small change made a huge difference from sitting stiff to sitting comfortably.

Skylab & Apollo-Soyuz Spacesuits

Being a more simplified version of the Apollo spacesuits, the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz spacesuits cost less to manufacture and had more lightweight and efficient parts. They were not venturing out onto other planets so all of the heavy and insignificant components were taken out.

However, the Apollo-type spacesuits were not fully ignored.

In 1975 they were brought back when American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts joined together in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project or ASTP. Since there were no spacewalks planned, the modified A7LB Apollo spacesuits were fitted with a cover for the micrometeoroid layer.

Space Shuttle Spacesuits

Having the Apollo/Skylab suits completely customized for the astronauts, the space shuttle spacesuits were more generalized. The shuttle suits came as individual components which could be assembled together to create the entire suit. Doing this allowed the spacesuit to fit men and women of all different shapes and sizes.

Each component of the spacesuit was manufactured in a variety of sizes. Finally, the Space Suit Assembly (SSA) and Life Support System (LSS) combined to make the full Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), or the fancy way of saying spacesuit.

Looking at the evolution of the spacesuit, the Apollo spacesuits were meant to last for one mission and be lightweight so the astronauts can do the required work on the moon. However, when the shuttle missions came along, they needed a suit that can not only protect the astronauts but also allow them to work in microgravity without the issue of the suit getting in the way. So they designed a new spacesuit with more gear but the capability of the feeling of weightlessness. When worn, the astronauts do not feel the heavy weight of the suit in space like they would on Earth.

The complete spacesuit with the full life support system weighs about 310 pounds. Alone, it would only weigh 110 pounds. To put this in perspective, if an astronaut weighs 170 pounds and wears the complete suit, the total weight would be 480 pounds.

The shuttle spacesuit was designed to last for up to 15 years over multiple missions.

All the spacesuits had their strengths and their weaknesses, but they have continued to grow and evolve with each and every passing moment. With a lot of the same components and usage, the space suit has served the astronauts well.

Now, I am not saying that trying to screw in a tiny bolt while wearing protective gloves is an easy task, but that is something that people all around the globe are looking at. They have their eyes fixed on the next generation of space suits.

Who knows, maybe you will be designing the next spacesuit to take astronauts back to the Moon, to an asteroid, Mars, and beyond. Maybe you will be the next one to wear a spacesuit. Only time will tell. Keep on dreaming space lovers.

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