Schreiber Science: A life saver of an outfit: how does a space suit work?

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An astronaut’s suit provides many essential features for being in space. Due to extreme temperatures, the suit has to be made of protective material (Neoprene-coated fibers), but its main purpose is to recreate Earth’s atmosphere for the wearer.

Mari Marisol, Features Editor

Venus has an atmosphere of swirling carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid. Neptune is swept by storms and freezing, high-speed winds. But Earth has the perfect climate and atmosphere to sustain human life. Our planet’s atmosphere protects us from dangerous radiation, regulates temperatures, and provide oxygen.  Oxygen is often taken for granted, but it’s crucial for astronauts if they wish to survive in atmospheres outside our own.

Astronauts rely on space suits to compensate for the absence of an atmosphere. Their thick, balloon-like space suits make up for the zero oxygen in space. This comes in handy when they emerge from their spaceship to collect samples on the moon, for example. While space suits do not provide astronauts with the same mix of gases found in Earth’s atmosphere, they do allow them to breathe properly in space. Oxygen is brought in through tubes connected to the spacesuits’ backpacks. When the astronauts release carbon dioxide, it’s stored in canisters on the spacesuits.

The space suit mimics an atmospheric pressure equal to that of 30,000 feet above the Earth. Without this pressurized atmosphere, the astronauts’ bodily fluids (i.e. blood) would not remain in the liquid state. They’d start boiling.

Furthermore, astronauts would not be equipped to handle the extreme temperatures found in space. They are heavily insulated with layers of fabric to maintain warm temperatures reflect sunlight. The spacesuit’s fabric is also used to protect astronauts from hazardous micro meteoroid collisions. It is made up of several layers of thin clothing that each start with lightweight shirts and shorts, followed by a shirt and pants that have a network of tubes woven into them. These tubes have water pumps that keep the astronaut cool during countdown. The fabric used in the clothing is also rubberized with Neoprene-coated fibers..

Leaving the space shuttle without a spacesuit guarantees instant death. A person can function for about 15 seconds before losing consciousness due to the lack of oxygen. Their lungs rupture, and gas is released into their blood. When facing the sun, an astronaut without a suit would be exposed to temperatures of 250 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cause severe sunburns. They can also be under temperatures of negative 450 degrees fahrenheit, at which the body’s liquids will freeze. The fluids in the body would begin to vaporize, forming gas bubbles under the skin through a process called ebullism. Due to the low temperatures, after having boiled, liquids in space immediately would freeze into ice crystals in a process called desublimation.

Fortunately, space suits make sure that astronauts can make it onto the moon without freezing or boiling to death. As technology develops, space suits become more advance, and hopefully astronauts will be able to explore more of the cosmos in the years to come.