Life in Space

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Man in space suit. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In 1969, America witnessed Neil Armstrong take mankind’s first step on the Moon, leaving footprints on its surface from the boots of his spacesuit. Spacesuits like Armstrong’s protected astronauts from the deadly conditions in space. They maintained a steady pressure, allowed for movement, regulated body temperature, supplied oxygen, eliminated carbon dioxide, and collected bodily waste.

Adapted from previously constructed suits made for high-altitude military pilots, spacesuits were originally designed for pressure stabilization. Because there is zero pressure in space, the suit worn by the first US astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, was designed to protect him in case of depressurization inside the cabin of Project Mercury’s Freedom 7. Luckily, no Mercury spacecraft ever lost pressure during a mission.

The suits evolved so astronauts could travel into space and leave their spacecraft. When Ed White became the first American to perform a spacewalk in 1965, he remained connected to the ship via an umbilical cord that provided life support. For independence on the lunar surface, astronauts used a portable life support system (PLSS) worn like a backpack. Due to differences in gravity, the suits and PLSS combined weighed thirty pounds on the Moon but a hefty 180 pounds on Earth.