(main picture) Based on the designs for high-altitude jet aircraft pressure suits used by the U.S. Navy, the Navy Mark IV suit was used for Project Mercury, NASA’s first manned mission. The first Mercury mission launched May 1961. Soon after, Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
Clocking in at 22 pounds, the Navy Mark IV was only to be worn inside the spacecraft. It consisted of a Neoprene-coated nylon inner layer and an aluminized nylon outer layer.
2. SK (1961-1963)
The SK-1 spacesuit stood for “Skafandr Kosmicheskiy” (“spacesuit”). Designed specifically for Yuri Gagarin, it helped launch the first man into space on the Russian spacecraft Vostok 1. The SK-1 allowed for ejections of up to 8 km and weighed 44 pounds. More suits in the SK series were used for later Vostok missions.
3. Berkut (1964-1965)
Only the Russian Voskhod 2 crew used the Berkut suit in the 1960s. A modified SK-1 suit, the Berkut had life support with enough oxygen to last 45 minutes. Weighing 91 pounds including the metal backpack, the suit was cumbersome and not at all flexible.
4. Gemini (1965-1966)
NASA developed and used several suits for its Gemini mission, the first American mission in which an astronaut would walk outside the spacecraft. The suits didn’t have their own life support, but instead a hose connected to the spacecraft for air supply. The G3C (pictured above right) consisted of six layers of nylon and NOMEX, a flame-resistant material. The G4C suit also used insulation made of Mylar, a polyester film, for temperature control.
Designed for moonwalks, NASA’s Apollo mission suits had life support as well as protection against the rocky terrain of the moon. They were also flexible so astronauts could move around and pick up moon rocks. Therefore, the A7L was a one-piece suit with convoluted rubber joints and meshing to increase flexibility. The A7L included metal rings at the neck and forearms to connect to pressure gloves, and a “fishbowl” helmet that allowed for an unrestricted view. With life support of up to six hours and an additional 30 minutes of backup, the Apollo A7L clocked in at a whopping 200 pounds.
The Sokol-K, the first suit in the Russian Sokol series, was first used in the Soyuz 12, which launched in Sept. 1973. The Sokol-K is a rescue suit, not to be used for extra-vehicular activity such as spacewalks. With a rubberized polycaprolactum inner layer and a nylon canvas outer layer, it kept the astronaut alive in case of accidental depressurization of the spacecraft. The later Sokol-KV2 suit, which is still currently in use, was launched in 1980 with a lighter and more streamlined design.
The Orlan-D suit was the first of the Russian Orlan series. It was first used in 1977 during the Soyuz 26 mission. The later Orlan-MK (pictured) was developed in 2009 and is currently still Russia’s spacesuit for extra-vehicular activity. A semi-rigid suit with a solid torso and flexible arms, the Orlan was designed to be self-sustaining, starting with the Orlan-DM model used in the 1980s.
The Space Shuttle escape suit was a modified version of a U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suit. The suit was first used in STS-1, the first orbital flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. Used exclusively for launch and landing, the suit included a helmet, parachute pack, life raft, life preserver unit as well as survival gear. The suit allowed for ejections of up to 24.4 meters.
The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) is used on the Space Shuttle as well as the International Space Station. A suit that provides its own environmental protection, mobility and life support, it’s used for extra-vehicular activity in Earth’s orbit. Similar to the Russian Orlan EVA suit, it was used by NASA astronauts until the end of the Shuttle program in 2011.
The Launch Entry Suit (pictured left), also known as the “pumpkin suit,” was used from NASA’s STS-26 mission in 1988 to the STS-88 in 1998. Worn for launch and reentry, the partial pressure suit has a NOMEX outer layer, a full-pressure helmet, zippered gloves, safety boots and a survival backpack. The LES was completely phased out in the 1990s by the full-pressure ACES suit, which includes improved ventilation and an extra layer of insulation.
The final frontier has been mankind’s dream since we realized we were not alone in the universe, and the spacecraft was the first step toward exploring the reaches of human possibility.
Consequently, the space suit is a feat of human history. With it, we accomplished what was previously deemed impossible: sending man into the abyss.