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.

Spacesuits

The surface of LV-223, as one imagines with the overwhelming majority of alien planets, is inhospitable to human life. For life support and protection, the crew wears suits complete with large clear “fishbowl” helmets that give a full-range of view. A sensor strip arcs across the forehead of the bowl, with all manner of sensors broadcasting information back to the ship. Crew also wear a soft fabric cap beneath the bowl with their name clearly stitched into a patch that sits above the forehead. (Type nerds: The face is modular, something similar to Eurostile. The name is in all caps. This is par for sci-fi typography, but poor for legibility at distance.)

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Sadly for the crewmembers (and the actors as well) the air inside these bowls are not well filtered and circulated. The inside surface fogs up quite easily from the wearer’s breath.

Audio

Audio is handled intuitively, with all microphones between spacesuits being active all the time, with an individual’s volume relative to his or her proximity to the listener. Janek is at one point able to stand in front of the ship and address everyone inside it, knowing that the helmet microphones are monitored at all times.

Lights, Cameras

There are lights inside the helmet, placed over the forehead and pointing down to make the wearer’s face visible to others nearby, as well as anyone remote-monitoring the wearer with a backward-facing camera. A curious feature of the suits that they also include yellow lights that highlight the wearer’s neck. What is the purpose of these lights? Certainly it shows off Michael Fassbender’s immaculate jawline, but diegetically, it’s unclear what the purpose of these things are. It is after the scientists remove their helmets in the alien environment—against the direct orders of the Captain—it becomes clear that the spacesuits were designed with this in mind. This way the spacesuits can be operated helmetlessly while maintaining identification lights for other crew. The odds of this being a feature that would ever be used on an alien planet are astronomically low, but the designers accommodated the ability to be operated without helmets.

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Sleeve computers

Holloway’s left sleeve has two small screens. The left one of these displays inscrutably small lines of cyan text. The right one has a label of PT011, with a 3×3 array of two-digit hexadecimal numbers beneath it.

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A few of the hexadecimal pairs have highlight boxes around them. Looking at this grid, Holloway is able to report to the others that, “Look at the CO2 levels. Outside it’s completely toxic, and in here there’s nothing. It’s breathable.” It’s inscrutable, but believably shorthand for vital bits of information, understsandable to well-trained wearers. For inputs to the sleeve computer, he has four momentary buttons along the bottom and a rotary side-mounted dial. Using these controls, Holloway is able to disable his safety controls and remove the helmet.