How flight suits have evolved to keep astronauts safe in space

Today’s high-tech spacesuit materials are a far cry from the cotton and rubber used by early high-altitude pilots.

This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Space suits—designed to provide oxygen and consistent atmospheric pressure—have evolved from pressure suits for pilots in high-altitude planes to ones that can keep astronauts alive in the near-vacuum conditions of space.

Read more about past—and future—travels to the moon in our July cover story “50 years after Apollo 11, a new moon race is on.

Designed for Survival

Extravehicular Activity

(EVA) Space Suits

E

EVA suits allow for work outside spaceships. They protect against threats such as extreme temperatures, debris, and radiation.

Intravehicular Activity

(IVA) Space Suits

I

IVA suits are an emergency system for cabin contamination or decompression. Proper pressure keeps body fluids from boiling.

Intra/Extravehicular

Activity (IEVA) Space Suits

IE

IVA suits accessorized to work outside, or IEVAs, eliminate the need for two separate suits and reduce cargo weight.

Suits shown pressurized

1934-1935 (years worn)

WINNIE MAE

I

Wiley Post designed the first pressure suit,

made of cotton and rubber, and flew nearly

50,000 feet high in it.

Weight: not recorded

Oxygen tank

Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae

1959-1968

X-15

I

The suit was used on the first rocket-powered

craft to hit the edge of space, 62 miles above

sea level.

Weight: 25 lb

North American X-15

1961-1963

MERCURY

I

This suit took on water in one landing; later

Mercury suits had survival gear with

flotation devices.

Weight: 22 lb

Mercury capsule

1965-1966

GEMINI

IE

The first suit worn outside a vehicle was

attached by an oxygen and tether line.

Weight: 34 lb VCM: 8 lb

Ventilation control mod­ule (VCM) with backup oxygen

Maneuvering device

Gemini capsule

1969-1974

APOLLO

IE

The first suit used on the moon enabled

astronauts to fully separate from a spacecraft.

Weight: 76 lb LSS: 125 lb

NEIL ARMSTRONG

Apollo 11 suit

Lunar extra-

vehicular

visor assembly:

Adjustable peripheral sun shield

Two visors, one gold coated, shield user from the sun’s rays and heat.

Pressure helmet

8

7

6

Control unit for LSS

5

Valves connected to the LSS:

4

Pure oxygen

3

Removal of carbon dioxide

2

1

The moon’s dust is so sharp it penetrated the suit’s outer layers and clogged zippers.

Injection patch for medication

Overshoes

Undergarments

Liquid cooling garment prevents overheating

1

2

Urine-collection assembly

Space suit layers

3

Comfort liner

4

Neoprene-coated nylon to retain pressure

Nylon restraint layer

5

6

Protective layers include thermal-regulating aluminized polymers and fire-resistant fabric

Life-support system (LSS)

Portable life-support system (up to six hours)

7

Emergency oxygen (30 minutes)

8

Apollo capsule

1983-today

SHUTTLE/ISS

E

Suits, once customized, now have generic,

swappable parts that fit men and women on

the International Space Station.

Weight: 122 lb LSS: 187 lb

Shuttle

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, KAYA BERNE, EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF; JOSE DANIEL CABRERA PEÑA. SOURCES: KENNETH S. THOMAS; NASA; SMITHSONIAN’s NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM; Richard D. Watson; Amy J. Ross

Extravehicular Activity

(EVA) Space Suits

Intra/Extravehicular

Activity (IEVA) Space Suits

Designed for Survival

Intravehicular Activity

(IVA) Space Suits

E

I

IE

IVA suits are an emergency

system for cabin contamination

or decompression. Proper pressure keeps body fluids from boiling.

EVA suits allow for work outside spaceships. They protect against threats such as extreme temperatures, debris, and radiation.

IVA suits accessorized to work outside, or IEVAs, eliminate the need for two separate suits and reduce cargo weight.

Suits shown pressurized

Ventilation control mod­ule (VCM) with backup oxygen

Oxygen tank

Maneuvering device

1934-1935 (years worn)

1961-1963

1965-1966

1959-1968

GEMINI

The first suit worn outside a vehicle was attached by an oxygen and tether line.

Weight: 34 lb VCM: 8 lb

WINNIE MAE

Wiley Post designed the first pressure suit, made of cotton and rubber, and flew nearly 50,000 feet high in it.

Weight: not recorded

X-15

The suit was used on the first rocket-powered craft to hit the edge of space, 62 miles above sea level.

Weight: 25 lb

MERCURY

This suit took on water in one landing; later Mercury suits had survival gear with flotation devices.

Weight: 22 lb

IE

I

I

I

Mercury capsule

Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae

North American X-15

Gemini capsule

Lunar extravehicular visor assembly

Undergarments

Liquid cooling garment prevents overheating

1

Two visors, one gold coated, shield user from the sun’s rays and heat.

Adjustable peripheral sun shield

2

Urine-collection assembly

Space suit layers

3

Comfort liner

4

Neoprene-coated nylon to retain pressure

Nylon restraint layer

5

6

Protective layers include thermal-regulating aluminized polymers and fire-resistant fabric

NEIL ARMSTRONG

Apollo 11 suit

Life-support system (LSS)

Portable life-support system (up to six hours)

7

Emergency oxygen (30 minutes)

8

8

Pressure helmet

7

6

Control unit for LSS

5

Connected to the LSS:

4

Valves to supply pure oxygen

3

Valves to remove carbon dioxide

2

The moon’s dust is so sharp it penetrated the suit’s outer layers and clogged zippers.

1

Injection patch for medication

1969-1974

1983-today

APOLLO

The first suit used on the moon enabled astronauts to fully separate from

a spacecraft.

Weight: 76 lb LSS: 125 lb

SHUTTLE/ISS

Suits, once customized, now have generic, swappable parts that fit men and women on the International Space Station.

Weight: 122 lb LSS: 187 lb

E

IE

Overshoes

Apollo capsule

Shuttle

FERNANDO G. BAPTISTA, KAYA BERNE, EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF; JOSE DANIEL CABRERA PEÑA

SOURCES: KENNETH S. THOMAS; NASA; SMITHSONIAN’s NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM; Richard D. Watson; Amy J. Ross