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The space suit is probably one of the greatest marvels of spaceflight. So why is there all this concentration on making a space suit work? They are, to put it simply, personal space craft. The current model certainly has the sort of price tag you would expect for a spacecraft. It is actually around $12 million for each one that NASA produces. The reason why is that they have to be made to do the job of a spacecraft, protection suit, and personal biosphere all at the same time.
First it took a herculean effort to make it possible for advanced life to survive in the environment of space. Space is not a friendly place for living things. There are whizzing meteoroids and other space objects moving faster than a conventional bullet. We know that any object when accelerated fast enough can go through pretty solid objects. Then there are the extreme temperature changes. Since there is no atmosphere in space there is no natural thermostat to keep temperatures within the range needed for sustainable life. Finally there is radiation, lots and lots of gamma rays and cosmic ray that can bombard with no natural protection like a magnetosphere or ozone layer. There’s no air pressure. This list of space dangers goes on and on. So, designing a suit that can survive this is more amazing than anything Q could whip up for James Bond.
A space suit meets these demands in several ways. First off, the suit is pressurized. Second, it deflects harmful objects and radiation with several layers of Mylar and Kevlar. However it the radiation protection is limited so space mission are scheduled around the appearance of major sources of radiation like solar flares. It has both a heater and coolant system to deal with the temperature changes in space. It provides the air, food and water that astronauts need to survive in space. And some space suits are even equipped with a propulsion system to allow astronauts to move around in space.
As for personal needs, space suits also come with diapers. However, they are not needed as much since current spacecraft come with facilities. Another important factor is mobility. The suits are made to as easy to move in as possible. However, Astronauts still have to practice moving in them as part of their training. In the end the space suit is a marvel of design. It allows astronauts to do manned mission and as research into textiles and space exploration continue they will only become more effective.
If you enjoyed this article there are several others on Universe Today that you can read. There is an article about the latest in space fashion. There is also an article about NASA terminating its contract with the designers of the suits for the Constellation project.
There are also great resources on the net. The NASA website has a great document that talks about the history of the space suit. There is also a great article on the How Stuff Works site about the space suitl
There is also a great episode of Astronomy Cast you can listen to. Episode 121 Space suits.