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Lunar Space Suit: The Most Complex Clothing Of All Time

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Perhaps no profession on earth (or...elsewhere) relies more on the trust between human and equipment than the astronaut and his suit. In space or on the Moon, there’s only a fine line of between life and death. That suit’s the thread that keeps the proverbial space anvil from crushing the astronauts...and there’s no plan B. The suit fails, and the mission dies. 

Here we collected facts about the most fascinating, most sophisticated uniform anyone's ever been forced to don at work.

The first steps on the Moon were done in the most complex outfits ever designed by man—the Apollo/Skylab A7L. The suit was the seventh-ever designed for the Apollo program, created by ILC Dover, who did such a good (read: safe) job that NASA still employs its services today.

Requirements for a lunar suit were extremely demanding. Consider two points which actually contradict:

1) It had to have protection from sharp lunar rocks and possible meteorites (no lunar atmosphere to protect them).
2) But it also had to have enough room to let the astronauts move around relatively unhampered.

Let’s remember that these guys had to stoop, run, jump, and even drive on the Moon. In other words, they needed to be dressed for the occasion. The general spirit of the suit's makeup remains even today, though an advancement has been made to the new Z-2's upper torso: a hard composite in which will likely be the basis for the suit designed to put humans on Mars. 

Due to the favorable gravitational exchange rate, the designers could afford to make the suit heavy, since 10 pounds on Earth tips the scales at just 1.7 pounds. You’ve seen the video:

The one-piece, extra-vehicular space suit began with a cooling garment featuring a series of polyvinyl tubes held by spandex that circulated water to regulate the astronaut’s temperature. (Evaporation from sweat wasn’t exactly a reliable source of cooling.) Yes, they treated Buzz and Neil like car engines. Over the cooling layer’s tubes came a nylon layer that eased the costume changes and added comfort.

Covering the nylon was a neoprene bladder similar to a g-suit with bellows for the joints (see below, right), pressurizing the suit. But this being a complicated setup, a nylon restraining layer had to follow the bladder to guarantee that it didn’t balloon out.

They also added a layer of sturdy nylon just in case a small meteorite went through the suit’s main defenses. Reportedly, though, it was unclear this would even do much protecting. 

The insulating layers continued. Alternating ones of special aluminized mylar and a synthetic plastic created an incredibly warm super-insulation to stave off the Moon’s devastating cold—nearly -400 fahrenheit at night.

The final parts of the space suit were reinforced to be as tank-like as possible. Special “Beta Cloth” was made with teflon-coated silica fibers that gave fire protection—required after the Apollo 1 disaster—and resistance against abrasion and lunar rocks. 

Lastly, reinforcing patches on the joints went on for a belt-and-suspenders redundancy. These outer layers would prove vital against the tiny micrometeoroids that rained down on the astronauts and the suits later.

The polycarbonate fishbowl helmets were attached by a pressure-sealed neck ring. This helmet differed from previous iterations as it allowed for the astronaut’s head to swivel inside.

Over the helmet came a visor made of Lexan—a plastic developed by General Electric—which provided additional protection from micrometeoroids as well as the bright sun, unfiltered due to lack of atmosphere.

The gloves and boots were nearly identical to the space suit’s construction. With the multiple layers of pressurization and protection, the gloves featured more rubber in the fingers to allow for some semblance of a tactile experience. As the main point of lunar contact, the boots had to be especially durable, and NASA used a special silicon rubber from GE that left quite the iconic footprint.

As complicated and high-tech as this suit was, the most sophisticated type of space-related human equipment came later. In 1984, the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) was a backpack attached to an astronaut, allowing the spacemen to roam untethered. The most impressive part of the MMU? Nitrogen gas powered the guys to move at 80 feet per second, thanks to 24 nozzle thrusters placed throughout. 

Designs for the future? Don't count out designs like "biomimicry" (think a scaly bioluminescent wetsuit), a Tron-looking suit made for better mobility and more advanced movement, or even suits that are going to be "reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future."


Ethan Wolff-Mann is an editor at Supercompressor. He has not been to space. As far as you know. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffman.