In a growing space economy with multiple companies vying for literal space in multi-billion-dollar ventures, every detail counts. Investors and students alike are wondering: what are space suits made of? Even more significantly: how have they changed?
The modern space race is not the same as it used to be. Rather than racing countries, this is a race for manufacturing dominance between private ventures, a test of research and development. Spacesuits have undergone major innovations, perhaps the first in decades. They are emblems of the change from government-run space programs to the competitive layered markets of the modern space race.
Types of Space Suits
There are three different types of space suits: those worn inside vehicles (IVA), outside vehicles (EVA), and those worn in both (IEVA). IEVA are the most well-protected and IVA, worn inside the rocket, are the lightest and most comfortable.
Spacesuits have existed for 90 years, built for high pressures and altitudes, but the first worn in space was Yuri Gagarin’s in 1961.
The most well-known suits are those created by NASA for the Apollo missions and onward. They are the textbook, “iconic” spacesuits. These suits consist of 14 layers of material to both protect the human from the elements as well as regulate vital functions.
Space Suit Materials
80 companies contributed to this suit model. The backpack has many moving parts, including the oxygen supply, filters, wiring, and ventilators. But it’s not connected to the suit itself. The suit starts at a bottom layer, a cooling and ventilating garment made of mesh and plastic tubes that circulate water.
Now for the big technical words — remember that the materials in space suits were, in many cases, chemically engineered for the suit. The lower torso material is a urethane-coated nylon that connects to the waist. Dacron holds it in place beneath the outer layer, which is nylon coated in Neoprene.
Above that — an aluminized Mylar shield 5-layers thick. The outside part of the suit is a fabric made of layered Nomex, Kevlar, and Teflon. You may recognize materials listed here from vehicle specs or bulletproof vests. They are designed and combined to protect people from the elements, which in space include meteorite bullets and the frozen vacuum.
The SpaceX Redesign
These suits remained largely the same throughout NASA’s Apollo and space station programs until SpaceX recently revamped the design and materials. These new suits are far more functional and lightweight, attached to a single pump for all support functions. Its design was refined by a movie costume designer, making it look like a suit from a 50s sci-fi adventure.
Most importantly, the new SpaceX suits are light (about 20 pounds) and go on in a single layer. They are made from Kevlar and Nomex with helmets built from 3D-printed pieces.
Spacesuits are made of layers of material designed to protect and insulate. The NASA spacesuits consist of over a dozen layers of fabric, mesh, and other material, resulting in their bulk. Redesigns in current private enterprises have made suits lighter, more versatile, and more advanced. Design innovations like 3D printers have blown open the possibilities for spacesuit technology in the next decade.