Space suits being used to work on the International Space Station.
A space suit must perform several functions to allow its occupant to work safely and comfortably, inside or outside a spacecraft. It must provide:
- A stable internal pressure. This can be less than Earth's atmosphere, as there is usually no need for the space suit to carry nitrogen (which comprises about 78% of Earth's atmosphere and is not used by the body). Lower pressure allows for greater mobility, but requires the suit occupant to breathe pure oxygen for a time before going into this lower pressure, to avoid decompression sickness.
- Mobility. Movement is typically opposed by the pressure of the suit; mobility is achieved by careful joint design. See the Theories of space suit design section.
- Supply of breathable oxygen and elimination of carbon dioxide; these gases are exchanged with the spacecraft or a Portable Life Support System (PLSS)
- Temperature regulation. Unlike on Earth, where heat can be transferred by convection to the atmosphere, in space, heat can be lost only by thermal radiation or by conduction to objects in physical contact with the exterior of the suit. Since the temperature on the outside of the suit varies greatly between sunlight and shadow, the suit is heavily insulated, and air temperature is maintained at a comfortable level.
- A communication system, with external electrical connection to the spacecraft or PLSS
- Means of collecting and containing solid and liquid bodily waste (such as a Maximum Absorbency Garment)
From left to right, Margaret R. (Rhea) Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnick, Sally K. Ride, Anna L. Fisher, and Shannon W. Lucid—The first six female astronauts of the United States stand with a Personal Rescue Enclosure
, a spherical life support ball for emergency transfer of people in space
Advanced suits better regulate the astronaut's temperature with a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG) in contact with the astronaut's skin, from which the heat is dumped into space through an external radiator in the PLSS.
Additional requirements for EVA include:
As part of astronautical hygiene control (i.e., protecting astronauts from extremes of temperature, radiation, etc.), a space suit is essential for extravehicular activity. The Apollo/Skylab A7L suit included eleven layers in all: an inner liner, a LCVG, a pressure bladder, a restraint layer, another liner, and a Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment consisting of five aluminized insulation layers and an external layer of white Ortho-Fabric. This space suit is capable of protecting the astronaut from temperatures ranging from −156 °C (−249 °F) to 121 °C (250 °F).
During exploration of the Moon or Mars, there will be the potential for lunar/Martian dust to be retained on the space suit. When the space suit is removed on return to the spacecraft, there will be the potential for the dust to contaminate surfaces and increase the risks of inhalation and skin exposure. Astronautical hygienists are testing materials with reduced dust retention times and the potential to control the dust exposure risks during planetary exploration. Novel ingress/egress approaches, such as suitports, are being explored as well.
In NASA space suits, communications are provided via a cap worn over the head, which includes earphones and a microphone. Due to the coloration of the version used for Apollo and Skylab, which resembled the coloration of the comic strip character Snoopy, these caps became known as "Snoopy caps."
Generally, to supply enough oxygen for respiration, a space suit using pure oxygen must have a pressure of about 32.4 kPa (240 Torr; 4.7 psi), equal to the 20.7 kPa (160 Torr; 3.0 psi) partial pressure of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere at sea level, plus 5.3 kPa (40 Torr; 0.77 psi) CO
2 and 6.3 kPa (47 Torr; 0.91 psi) water vapor pressure, both of which must be subtracted from the alveolar pressure to get alveolar oxygen partial pressure in 100% oxygen atmospheres, by the alveolar gas equation. The latter two figures add to 11.6 kPa (87 Torr; 1.7 psi), which is why many modern space suits do not use 20.7 kPa (160 Torr; 3.0 psi), but 32.4 kPa (240 Torr; 4.7 psi) (this is a slight overcorrection, as alveolar partial pressures at sea level are slightly less than the former). In space suits that use 20.7 kPa, the astronaut gets only 20.7 kPa − 11.7 kPa = 9.0 kPa (68 Torr; 1.3 psi) of oxygen, which is about the alveolar oxygen partial pressure attained at an altitude of 1,860 m (6,100 ft) above sea level. This is about 78% of normal partial pressure of oxygen at sea level, about the same as pressure in a commercial passenger jet aircraft, and is the realistic lower limit for safe ordinary space suit pressurization which allows reasonable capacity for work.
When space suits below a specific operating pressure are used from craft that are pressurized to normal atmospheric pressure (such as the Space Shuttle), this requires astronauts to "pre-breathe" (meaning pre-breathe pure oxygen for a period) before donning their suits and depressurizing in the air lock. This procedure purges the body of dissolved nitrogen, so as to avoid decompression sickness due to rapid depressurization from a nitrogen-containing atmosphere.
Physical effects of unprotected space exposure
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. (December 2014)
The human body can briefly survive the hard vacuum of space unprotected, despite contrary depictions in some popular science fiction. Human flesh expands to about twice its size in such conditions, giving the visual effect of a body builder rather than an overfilled balloon. Consciousness is retained for up to 15 seconds as the effects of oxygen starvation set in. No snap freeze effect occurs because all heat must be lost through thermal radiation or the evaporation of liquids, and the blood does not boil because it remains pressurized within the body.
In space, there are many different highly energized subatomic protons that will expose the body to extreme radiation. Although these compounds are minimal in amount, their high energy is liable to disrupt essential physical and chemical processes in the body, such as altering DNA or causing cancers. Exposure to radiation can create problems via two methods: the particles can react with water in the human body to produce free radicals that break DNA molecules apart, or by directly breaking the DNA molecules.
Temperature in space can vary extremely depending on where the sun is. Temperatures from solar radiation can reach up to 250 °F (121 °C) and lower down to −387 °F (−233 °C). Because of this, space suits must provide proper insulation and cooling.
The vacuum in space creates zero pressure, causing the gases and processes in the body to expand. In order to prevent chemical processes in the body from overreacting, it is necessary to develop a suit that counteracts against the pressure in space. The greatest danger is in attempting to hold one's breath before exposure, as the subsequent explosive decompression can damage the lungs. These effects have been confirmed through various accidents (including in very-high-altitude conditions, outer space and training vacuum chambers). Human skin does not need to be protected from vacuum and is gas-tight by itself. Instead, it only needs to be mechanically compressed to retain its normal shape. This can be accomplished with a tight-fitting elastic body suit and a helmet for containing breathing gases, known as a space activity suit (SAS).