Spacesuits in Sci-fi

“Why cannot we walk outside [the spaceship] like the meteor? Why cannot we launch into space through the scuttle? What enjoyment it would be to feel oneself thus suspended in ether, more favored than the birds who must use their wings to keep themselves up!”

—The astronaut Michel Ardan in Round the Moon by Jules Verne (1870)

When we were close to publication on Make It So, we wound up being way over the maximum page count for a Rosenfeld Media book. We really wanted to keep the components and topics sections, and that meant we had to cut the section on things. Spacesuits was one of the chapters I drafted about things. I am representing that chapter here on the blog. n.b. This was written ten years ago in 2011. There are almost certainly other more recent films and television shows that can serve as examples. If you, the reader, notice any…well, that‘s what the comments section is for.

Sci-fi doesn’t have to take place in interplanetary space, but a heck of a lot of it does. In fact, the first screen-based science fiction film is all about a trip to the moon.

La Voyage Dans La Lune (1904): The professors suit up for their voyage to the moon by donning conical caps, neck ruffles, and dark robes.

Most of the time, traveling in this dangerous locale happens inside spaceships, but occasionally a character must travel out bodily into the void of space. Humans—and pretty much everything (no not them) we would recognize as life—can not survive there for very long at all. Fortunately, the same conceits that sci-fi adopts to get characters into space can help them survive once they’re there.

Establishing terms

An environmental suit is any that helps the wearer survive in an inhospitable environment. Environment suits first began with underwater suits, and later high-altitude suits. For space travel, pressure suits are to be worn during the most dangerous times, i.e. liftoff and landing, when an accident may suddenly decompress a spacecraft. A spacesuit is an environmental suit designed specifically for survival in outer space. NASA refers to spacesuits as Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs. Individuals who wear the spacesuits are known as spacewalkers. The additional equipment that helps a spacewalker move around space in a controlled manner is the Manned Mobility Unit, or MMU.

Additionally, though many other agencies around the world participate in the design and engineering of  spacesuits, there is no convenient way to reference them and their efforts as a group, so Aerospace Community is used as a shorthand. This also helps to acknowledge that my research and interviews were primarily with sources primarily from NASA.

The design of the spacesuit is an ongoing and complicated affair. To speak of “the spacesuit” as if it were a single object ignores the vast number of iterations and changes made to the suits between each cycle of engineering, testing, and deployment, must less between different agencies working on their own designs. So, for those wondering, I’m using the Russian Orlan spacesuit currently being used in the International Space Station and shuttle missions as the default design when speaking about modern spacesuits.

Spacesuit Orlan-MKS at MAKS-2013(air show) (fragment) CC BY-SA 4.0

What the thing’s got to do

A spacesuit, whether in sci-fi or the real world, has to do three things.

  1. It has to protect the wearer from the perils of interplanetary space.
  2. It has to accommodate the wearer’s ongoing biological needs.
  3. Since space is so dangerous, the suit and tools must help the wearer accomplish their extravehicular tasks efficiently and get them back to safer environs as quickly as possible.

Each of these categories of functions, and the related interfaces, are discussed in following posts.

4 thoughts on “Spacesuits in Sci-fi

  1. You might find it interesting to read “To Be Taught If Fortunate” by Becky Chambers. Not quite space suits – more the idea that we might change our characteristics to suit difference extraterrestrial needs (eg glowing in dark so colleagues can find us, or strength to deal with different gravities).

  2. Star Trek: Into Darkness has Khan and Kirk flying at speed in spacesuits from the Enterprise to the bad guy ship. IIRC, there are HUDs, voice alerts, damage, guidance and comms from the Enterprise, and course changes.
    Worth watching for this topic.
    (Never thought I’d say that about ST:ID. Shakes walking stick in direction of JJ Abrams.)

    • I remember this vaguely, and thinking “when this comes out I’m going to have a hell of a time reviewing it.” will check it out!

    • The HUD and tunnel-in-the-sky displays are really cool, and the hand-clasp sensors are cool and well-mapped. But much more of the scene is frustrating. If the suit has a HUD, why does it not show the collision dangers (in the scene officers on the bridge warn them via radio!) and why does it rely on manual control? Why is it not handled by the computer? Sure, Kirk might have a complication requiring emergency manual control, but manual control as a default—-especially in precision, mission-critical maneuvers–seems silly. :-\ It reminded me of this scene from the prior Abrams ST movie in 2009. I had misremembered it has having a HUD.

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