NASA's first spacesuit, worn by U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard in 1963, was awfully shiny — like tinfoil wrapped around an action figure. Less than a decade later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin skipped across the moon's surface wearing iconic bubble suits that vaguely resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy. And the current model donned by NASA's heroic space explorers hasn't been changed since 1992, making it something of a dinosaur, says David Szondy at Gizmag. Well, that's about to change, thanks to the "Z-1 Prototype Spacesuit and Portable Life Support System." Here's what you should know:
Why hasn't NASA updated its spacesuit in 20 years?
They haven't needed to. Most U.S. space missions have taken humans from a space shuttle directly to the International Space Station (ISS), where astronauts float safely inside. The old suits were fully capable of handling the job. But now, with NASA expected to announce more moon missions soon, and with President Obama proposing a plan to send astronauts on longer missions to asteroids by 2025, and with all the hubbub surrounding Mars, NASA's wardrobe needs an update.
So what are they changing?
Everything, basically. Just like gadgets here on Earth are always slimming down, the material used for the Z-1 will be noticeably thinner than older models, with flexible joints to allow for greater mobility. Popular Science notes this "provisional outer covering" will be heavily engineered, with a layer of urethane-coated nylon that helps retain air. The outermost layer will be made of polyester, which allows the suit to mold to its wearer. And the suit will need to protect the wearer from heat, cold, and tiny little space fragments. It'll need to supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide contaminants. As Gizmag's Szondy succinctly puts it, the suit will "need to do everything that a spaceship does." The astronaut will also wear a backpack-like "suitport" — an umbilical cord-like support system that connects the wearer to an attached spaceship, rover, or space base. This system supplies the wearer with everything they need: Proper oxygen intake, safe temperature levels, a low-pressure system, and other necessities needed to survive space's deadly vacuum.
How do astronauts put it on?
The whole process of putting on a spacesuit is a painstaking affair, and currently takes over an hour. But this new system will be easier, utilizing a less-rigid suit that's flexible when not inflated — more like your dirty laundry than a medieval suit of armor.
What will they wear it for?
Everything, basically — from doing basic ISS repairs to walking on Mars' barren surface. "It's like you're trying to go on vacation, but don't know if you're going to Antarctica, Miami, or Buckingham palace," spacesuit engineer Amy Ross told UberGizmo back in July. "We're building a lot of tools for the toolbox. Right now we're very flexible."
Why does look like it was inspired by a certain Toy Story character?
It sure does, doesn't it? Between the bubble-like helmet and the lime-green piping, the resemblance between the Z-1 and Buzz Lightyear's space ranger get-up is pretty "uncanny," says Ryan Grenoble at The Huffington Post. It's unclear if NASA designed the suit with the Disney hero in mind, but bear in mind the Z-1 is still just a prototype. To infinity and beyond, in any case.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
- 9 things you probably didn't know about the moon
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
- What I learned from totally unplugging and shutting up for three days
- Israel has only two choices: Eliminate the Palestinians or make peace
- The rise of the global middle class is our best hope to stop climate change
- Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians
Subscribe to the Week