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.


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.

The Shagpile Cockpit


Barbarella’‘s rocket ship has a single main room, which is covered wall-to-wall with shagpile carpet. The visual panel of her voice-interface computer, called Alphy, is built into the wall near the back. On the right side of Alphy sits the video phone statue. To the left a a large reproduction of Seurat’’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte masks a door to exit the ship.


A recessed, circular seating space near the front acts as the cockpit. From this position Barbarella can see through a large angled viewport. One nice aspect of the design of the cockpit is that when things are going poorly for the rocket ship, and Barbarella is being buffeted about, the pile keeps the damage to a minimum and, the recessed cockpit is likely to “catch” her and hold her there, in a place where she can try and remedy the situation. (This is exactly what happens when they encounter “magnetic disturbances” on their approach to Tau Ceti.)

Magnetic Disturbances

The control panel for the ship is a wide band of roughly 60 unlabeled black, white, and gray keys, curving around the pilot like amphitheater seating. The keys themselves are random lengths, stacking in some places two and three to a column. Barbarella presses these keys when she must manually pilot the ship, at one point pressing a particular one several times in quick succession. That action suggests not controls for building up commands like a computer keyboard, but rather direct-effect controls, like an automobile dashboard, where each key has a different, direct effect.


This keyboard panel lacks any clues as to the functions of the keys for first-time users, but the high-contrast and cluster patterns make it easy for expert users like Barbarella (being as she is a 5-star double-rated Astro-Navigatrix) to visually locate a particular key amongst them. But there’s a lot that could be improved. First and most obvious is that the extents of the keyboard are quite spread out from her immediate reach. Bringing them within easy reach would mean less physical work. We also know that like an automotive dashboard, unless these keys are all controlling things with direct, obvious consequences, some status indicators in the periphery of her vision would be damned handy. And even with the unique key configuration, Barbarella would have an even easier time of it with physically differentiated controls, ideally with carefully designed affordances.

The other features of the cockpit, including a concave panel in the wall to her left with large, round, colored lights, and a set of large, reflective black domes on the right hand side of the cockpit, are not seen in use.

Metropolis: Overview

Release Date: 10 January 1927, Germany

After falling in love at first sight with Maria, Freder leaves his idyllic life in the Upper City. In the Lower City he learns of the plight of the laborers and witnesses a tragic explosion. He speaks with his conniving father Joh, who instructs a spy to keep tabs on his son.

Freder switches places with a laborer only to be drawn into an underground resistance, where he learns Maria is its spiritual leader. Meanwhile Joh meets with the mad scientist Rotwang and sees his robotic creation, the Machine-Man. Joh tells Rotwang to use the robot to end Maria and dispirit the resistance. Rotwang captures Maria and gives the Machine-Man her likeness.

Machine-Maria ruins Maria’’s reputation with lascivious public performances. She then foments an insurrection in the Lower City. The mob storms the gates and ruins the vital Heart Machine. The city begins to flood. Maria escapes her captor and rushes to the laborer’s city, to be reunited with Freder and save the children who had been left behind.

Grot reminds the rabble of their abandoned children. Suddenly terrified, they conduct a witch hunt for Maria. They find Machine-Maria and burn her at the stake, who transforms as she is dying back into the robot.

Meanwhile Rotwang has re-captured Maria. In a great struggle atop the roofs of the Upper City, Feder defeats Rotwang and saves his beloved. Afterwards at a public gathering she declares him the Mediator, a savior who was foretold to bring the long-parted classes of the Metropolis together.