Introduction To Spacesuit Technology

The importance of the spacesuit a being necessary for life support in space, a few of the lesser known functions of these technological advancements.

What spacesuits generally are thought to be and what they are in reality are two very different things. They are generally seen as being the equivalent of diving suits for outer space, protecting their wearer and providing air. While space is known to be an airless environment, space is more than an empty vacuum. It is filled with a complex group of particles and radiation, it has temperatures that range in extremes of both hot and cold, it is the environment that is most hostile to life.

What spacesuits do is more than just provide a shield from a vacuum, and a supply of air. A spacesuit is an environment all its own. Spacesuits protect against pressure differentials that would cause the body to boil and flash freeze simultaneously. In the vacuum of space it is more than the absence of air that is the danger. The lack of pressure would cause the liquids within living cells exposed unprotected to space to boil almost instantly. Because boiling of a liquid occurs when the pressure above a liquid is equal to or less than the vapor pressure of the liquid in space liquids begin to boil instantly. At the same time because energy is needed to start boiling, body heat would provide the source of energy thereby freezing the rest of the body. While this simultaneous freezing and boiling would be occurring, another force would be acting to tear the living body apart, explosive pressure outbreak due to the ballooning of air filled tissues which would expand to the breaking point due to the lack of outside pressure. In other words the body exposed to space would blow-up like a balloon that was over inflated.

Spacesuits must also act as an armor shield against small particles known as micrometeorites, which travel at extremely high speeds and have an energy potential that could penetrate several inches of metal. These particles, though very small and very seldom cause collisions, pose a problem that must be addressed. There is also the problem of radiation and light, which in space pose problems that are not known on earth. While the atmosphere shields life on earth from gamma, beta, ultraviolet, x-rays, and other harmful radiation, in space there is no protection other than the spacesuit.

Materials use for spacesuits must be lightweight, flexible, strong, resistant to radiation, and be able to stand large variations in temperature. Spacesuits are also required to be not only airtight, but a combination of both rigid yet flexible enough to allow movement of limbs. They must be strong enough to keep from exploding from the difference in pressure between its inner environment and the vacuum on the outside, which is space, at the same time they have to be able to allow an astronaut or cosmonaut the freedom of movement that allows them to work in space. Temperature extremes are another consideration. In space the temperatures in dark may approach absolute zero, while some particles in space may have the energy equivalent of over a million degrees. Since the spacesuit must also be able to protect its wearer from lethal radiation levels that the earth's atmosphere would normally filter out, the materials used must have shielding properties.

Then there is the problem of working in the zero gravity environment of space. The suit must be able to allow men to work in ways that take into account some of the unique things that make simple tasks become complicated. The suit must also be part tool kit and mobility unit. What has evolved because of these requirements is a complex combination of living environment, mobility, and tool kit.

The modern spacesuit used by today's space travelers is not a single unit but a series of garments and unit assemblies. These include a thermal comfort undergarment, with liquid cooling and ventilation. There are the upper and lower torso assemblies, which connect to the arm and finger assemblies. The upper torso contains life support, propulsion unit, and display and control units. There are sizing inserts to lock the boots and gloves and the fingers have adjustments for each individual digit. Then there is the helmet assembly, which includes communication and connections to the bio monitoring systems. Two locking rings connect the links between the upper and lower torsos. The whole suit takes about an hour to put on and can't be done without assistance.

Communication, monitoring, life support, and shielding, all that and so much more, yet one problem still remains unsolved. While the suit contains sources for water and food, one necessity is handled in a most primitive fashion; bodily waste is handled by what amounts to a diaper.

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