Past, Present, and Future of Spacesuits

Image result for universeThe universe is a beautiful thing. Each day is another opportunity for cosmic expansion, the twinkling of stars, and incredible physics phenomena. Yet all enthusiasm is extinguished when you unexpectedly get tossed out of the airlock into the vacuum of space–without a space suit. A sudden lethal place the universe becomes.

You have roughly 10 to 15 seconds until you lose consciousness. This is due to oxygen basically leaving your bloodstream, and you can’t survive when your brain is getting deoxygenated blood. You might think holding your breath is a good idea, but that would probably guarantee a fatal death–ruptured lungs. You’d have to excel the air, as your lungs would have expanded with the loss in air pressure. Hopefully, someone can save you within the next 90 seconds or so. By the 3 minute mark, it’s probably too late.

The exposure to zero gravity would also lower the boiling point of your bodily fluids. If you’ve ever taken a chemistry class before, you would know that this means that the fluids in your body wouldn’t require nearly as much heat before changing states of matter, and it quickly turns into vapor near the surface of your skin. As a result, you would essentially puff out to twice your size. It’s kind of like a balloon. When you add air to a balloon, the particles are vibrating really fast which causes the balloon to expand, as the particles take up more space. This whole process of fluids transforming into vapor is called Ebullism–which you probably won’t see with being unconscious.

Then, depending on if you’re on the side of space facing the sun or away will determine if you feel hot or cold. If you’re in the sun, it’ll be hot. However, if you’re away from the sun, it’ll get cold. This is because you are essentially radiating out all of your heat from your body.

So not only do you have to worry about all the hazards that come with zero gravity space, but you’d probably also have burns on your skin from cosmic radiation to worry about. Doesn’t sound like a very pleasant experience does it?

And that’s where spacesuits come in! They are essentially bags of air that are used as pressure replacements. This is what allows your fluids to maintain their liquid state and not turn into vapor. They are also helpful in mobility and communication between the crew. Spacesuits are basically the only thing protecting astronauts from life and death–a justification of how significant they are, giving reason for why people should know what makes up this seemingly complicated Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) a.k.a. spacesuit.

How NASA Spacesuits Work: EMUs Explained (Infographic)

What I also found interesting was the process involved in spacewalks. A spacewalk is when an astronaut goes out of his or her space vehicle to do experiments, test new equipment, and repair the damage done to satellites or spacecrafts. Before an astronaut can go outside, first he must put on his spacesuit for 7 hours in order to get all of the nitrogen out of his body.

Even though these spacesuits are incredible inventions of human innovation in space exploration, there definitely calls for a need to improve them, and we’ve postponed this for only too long. Unfortunately, one huge disadvantage is the fact that spacesuits have to be made from scratch. Not only that, but did I mention that it costs millions of dollars just to make one?

Currently, there’s only about 11 spacesuits in use which were apparently designed 40 years ago. This means that there is a shortage in them and also that they’re not custom fitted to the spacewalker. We’re also facing the dilemma of not having quite figured out how to protect ourselves from the radiation in space.

A year ago, I had the privilege of trying on a spacesuit glove. It was a memorable experience, yet I did notice that it was hard to move my fingers. The same dilemma is evident throughout other parts of the suit which makes it stiff and difficult to move around in. This is not necessarily good for spacewalkers either because they lose a lot of their energy merely for mobility.

Despite these problems, researchers are trying to come up with groundbreaking solutions to our currently bulky spacesuits.

One of these in particular is the BioSuit created by Dava Newman in an MIT collaboration to come up with a more light-weight and effective suit for future Mars expeditions. Unlike the EMUs, this suit concept relies on the idea of applying pressure to the skin. This would allow for movement with more agility, a much safer option from the stiff and difficult to maneuver EMUs.

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MIT BioSuit

I always find it incredible to watch as we continue to  advance in our understanding and creation of space-related technologies. We have truly made far reaches in these advancements and continue to do so each and every day.

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