Sci-fi Spacesuits: Biological needs

Spacesuits must support the biological functioning of the astronaut. There are probably damned fine psychological reasons to not show astronauts their own biometric data while on stressful extravehicular missions, but there is the issue of comfort. Even if temperature, pressure, humidity, and oxygen levels are kept within safe ranges by automatic features of the suit, there is still a need for comfort and control inside of that range. If the suit is to be warn a long time, there must be some accommodation for food, water, urination, and defecation. Additionally, the medical and psychological status of the wearer should be monitored to warn of stress states and emergencies.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t reveal any interfaces being used to control temperature, pressure, or oxygen levels. There are some for low oxygen level warnings and testing conditions outside the suit, but these are more outputs than interfaces where interactions take place.

There are also no nods to toilet necessities, though in fairness Hollywood eschews this topic a lot.

The one example of sustenance seen in the survey appears in Sunshine, we see Captain Kaneda take a sip from his drinking tube while performing a dangerous repair of the solar shields. This is the only food or drink seen in the survey, and it is a simple mechanical interface, held in place by material strength in such a way that he needs only to tilt his head to take a drink.

Similarly, in Sunshine, when Capa and Kaneda perform EVA to repair broken solar shields, Cassie tells Capa to relax because he is using up too much oxygen. We see a brief view of her bank of screens that include his biometrics.

Remote monitoring of people in spacesuits is common enough to be a trope, but has been discussed already in the Medical chapter in Make It So, for more on biometrics in sci-fi.

Crowe’s medical monitor in Aliens (1986).

There are some non-interface biological signals for observers. In the movie Alien, as the landing party investigates the xenomorph eggs, we can see that the suit outgases something like steam—slower than exhalations, but regular. Though not presented as such, the suit certainly confirms for any onlooker that the wearer is breathing and the suit functioning.

Given that sci-fi technology glows, it is no surprise to see that lots and lots of spacesuits have glowing bits on the exterior. Though nothing yet in the survey tells us what these lights might be for, it stands to reason that one purpose might be as a simple and immediate line-of-sight status indicator. When things are glowing steadily, it means the life support functions are working smoothly. A blinking red alert on the surface of a spacesuit could draw attention to the individual with the problem, and make finding them easier.

Emergency deployment

One nifty thing that sci-fi can do (but we can’t yet in the real world) is deploy biology-protecting tech at the touch of a button. We see this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Starlord’s helmet.

If such tech was available, you’d imagine that it would have some smart sensors to know when it must automatically deploy (sudden loss of oxygen or dangerous impurities in the air), but we don’t see it. But given this speculative tech, one can imagine it working for a whole spacesuit and not just a helmet. It might speed up scenes like this.

What do we see in the real world?

Are there real-world controls that sci-fi is missing? Let’s turn to NASA’s space suits to compare.

The Primary Life-Support System (PLSS) is the complex spacesuit subsystem that provides the life support to the astronaut, and biomedical telemetry back to control. Its main components are the closed-loop oxygen-ventilation system for cycling and recycling oxygen, the moisture (sweat and breath) removal system, and the feedwater system for cooling.

The only “biology” controls that the spacewalker has for these systems are a few on the Display and Control Module (DCM) on the front of the suit. They are the cooling control valve, the oxygen actuator slider, and the fan switch. Only the first is explicitly to control comfort. Other systems, such as pressure, are designed to maintain ideal conditions automatically. Other controls are used for contingency systems for when the automatic systems fail.

Hey, isn’t the text on this thing backwards? Yes, because astronauts can’t look down from inside their helmets, and must view these controls via a wrist mirror. More on this later.

The suit is insulated thoroughly enough that the astronaut’s own body heats the interior, even in complete shade. Because the astronaut’s body constantly adds heat, the suit must be cooled. To do this, the suit cycles water through a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, which has a fine network of tubes held closely to the astronaut’s skin. Water flows through these tubes and past a sublimator that cools the water with exposure to space. The astronaut can increase or decrease the speed of this flow and thereby the amount to which his body is cooled, by the cooling control valve, a recessed radial valve with fixed positions between 0 (the hottest) and 10 (the coolest), located on the front of the Display Control Module.

The spacewalker does not have EVA access to her biometric data. Sensors measure oxygen consumption and electrocardiograph data and broadcast it to the Mission Control surgeon, who monitors it on her behalf. So whatever the reason is, if it’s good enough for NASA, it’s good enough for the movies.


Back to sci-fi

So, we do see temperature and pressure controls on suits in the real world, which underscores their absence in sci-fi. But, if there hasn’t been any narrative or plot reason for such things to appear in a story, we should not expect them.

Sci-fi Spacesuits: Protecting the Wearer from the Perils of Space

Space is incredibly inhospitable to life. It is a near-perfect vacuum, lacking air, pressure, and warmth. It is full of radiation that can poison us, light that can blind and burn us, and a darkness that can disorient us. If any hazardous chemicals such as rocket fuel have gotten loose, they need to be kept safely away. There are few of the ordinary spatial clues and tools that humans use to orient and control their position. There are free-floating debris that range from to bullet-like micrometeorites to gas and rock planets that can pull us toward them to smash into their surface or burn in their atmospheres. There are astronomical bodies such as stars and black holes that can boil us or crush us into a singularity. And perhaps most terrifyingly, there is the very real possibility of drifting off into the expanse of space to asphyxiate, starve (though biology will be covered in another post), freeze, and/or go mad.

The survey shows that sci-fi has addressed most of these perils at one time or another.

Alien (1976): Kane’s visor is melted by a facehugger’s acid.

Interfaces

Despite the acknowledgment of all of these problems, the survey reveals only two interfaces related to spacesuit protection.

Battlestar Galactica (2004) handled radiation exposure with simple, chemical output device. As CAG Lee Adama explains in “The Passage,” the badge, worn on the outside of the flight suit, slowly turns black with radiation exposure. When the badge turns completely black, a pilot is removed from duty for radiation treatment.

This is something of a stretch because it has little to do with the spacesuit itself, and is strictly an output device. (Nothing that proper interaction requires human input and state changes.) The badge is not permanently attached to the suit, and used inside a spaceship while wearing a flight suit. The flight suit is meant to act as a very short term extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), but is not a spacesuit in the strict sense.

The other protection related interface is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Dr. Dave Bowman begins an extravehicular activity to inspect seemingly-faulty communications component AE-35, we see him touch one of the buttons on his left forearm panel. Moments later his visor changes from being transparent to being dark and protective.

We should expect to see few interfaces, but still…

As a quick and hopefully obvious critique, Bowman’s function shouldn’t have an interface. It should be automatic (not even agentive), since events can happen much faster than human response times. And, now that we’ve said that part out loud, maybe it’s true that protection features of a suit should all be automatic. Interfaces to pre-emptively switch them on or, for exceptional reasons, manually turn them off, should be the rarity.

But it would be cool to see more protective features appear in sci-fi spacesuits. An onboard AI detects an incoming micrometeorite storm. Does the HUD show much time is left? What are the wearer’s options? Can she work through scenarios of action? Can she merely speak which course of action she wants the suit to take? If a wearer is kicked free of the spaceship, the suit should have a homing feature. Think Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, but for astronauts.

As always, if you know of other examples not in the survey, please put them in the comments.

Escape pod and insertion windows

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When the Rodger Young is destroyed by fire from the Plasma Bugs on Planet P, Ibanez and Barcalow luckily find a functional escape pod and jettison. Though this pod’s interface stays off camera for almost the whole scene, the pod is knocked and buffeted by collisions in the debris cloud outside the ship, and in one jolt we see the interface for a fraction of a second. If it looks familiar, it is not from anything in Starship Troopers.

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The interface features a red wireframe image of the planet below, outlined by a screen-green outline, oriented to match the planet’s appearance out the viewport. Overlaid on this is a set of screen-green rectangles, twisting as they extend in space (and time) towards the planet. These convey the ideal path for the ship to take as it approaches the planet.

I’ve looked through all the screen grabs I’ve made for this movie, and there no other twisting-rectangle interfaces that I can find. (There’s this, but it’s a status-indicator.) It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to an interface from a different movie made 18 years earlier: Alien. Compare the shot above to the shot below, which is the interface Ash uses to pilot the dropship from the Nostromo to LV-426.

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It’s certainly not the same interface, the most obvious aspect of which is the blue chrome and data, absent from Ibanez’ screen. But the wireframe planet and twisting rectangles of Starship Troopers are so reminiscent of Alien that it must be at least an homage.

Planet P, we have a problem

Whether homage, theft, or coincidence, each of these has a problem as far as the interaction design. The rectangles certainly show the pilot an ideal path in a way that can instantly be understood even by us non-pilots. At a glance we understand that Ibanez should roll her pod to the right. Ash will need to roll his to the left. But how are they actually doing against this ideal? How is the pilot doing compared to that goal at the moment? How is she trending? It’s as if they were driving a car and being told “stay in the center of the middle lane” without being told how close to either edge they were actually driving.

Rectangle to rectangle?

The system could use the current alignment of the frame of the screen itself to the foremost rectangle in the graphic, but I don’t think that’s what happening. The rectangles don’t match the ratio of the frame. Additionally, the foremost rectangle is not given any highlight to draw the pilot’s attention to it as the next task, which you’d expect. Finally that’s a level of abstraction that wouldn’t fit the narrative as well, to immediately convey the purpose of the interface.

Show me me

Ash may see some of that comparison-to-ideal information in blue, but the edge of the screen is the wrong place for it. His attention would be split amongst three loci of attention: the viewport, the graphic display, and the text display. That’s too many. You want users to see information first, and read it secondarily if they need more detail. If we wanted a single locus of attention, you could put ideal, current state, and trends all as a a heads-up display augmenting the viewport (as I recommended for the Rodger Young earlier).

If that broke the diegesis too much, you can at least add to the screen interface an avatar of the ship, in a third-person overhead view. That would give the pilot an immediate sense of where their ship currently is in relation to the ideal. A projection line could show the way the ship is trending in the future, highlighting whether things are on a good or not so good path. Numerical details could augment these overlays.

By showing the pilot themselves in the interface—like the common 3rd person view in modern racing video games—pilots would not just have the ideal path described, but the information they need to keep their vessels on track.

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Alien / Blade Runner crossover

I’m interrupting my review of the Prometheus interfaces for a post to share this piece of movie trivia. A few months ago, a number of blogs were all giddy with excitement by the release of the Prometheus Blu-Ray, because it gave a little hint that the Alien world and the Blade Runner world were one and the same. Hey internets, if you’d paid attention to the interfaces, you’d realize that this was already well established by 1982, or 30 years before.

A bit of interface evidence that Alien and Blade Runner happen in the same universe.