Space travel and its accompanying technological advances developed rapidly in the 20th and 21st centuries, impacting the scientific development of mankind, as well as political structure on a global scale. Since the 20th century, space exploration and technological development have been a scientific luxury usually reserved for the world's political superpowers, and as such, the development of space suits has been entrusted to those powerful few.
The visual evolution of space suits demonstrates the development of the Space Race in the context of the Cold War; both the United States and the USSR were fighting to establish technogical dominance over one another. Both nations developed their own suits for their specific needs, and the distinctions between these suits indicates the economic capabilities of each nation - or the lack thereof.
Tracking the economic and political development of a nation through their space suits is interesting in its own right. However, space suits can also display history on a much grander scale: they demonstrate humanity's ability to explore the unknown through science and progressively adapt to their environment. Using combined resources from government institutions, the best aerospace engineering schools, and private companies, humankind has been able to explore a realm that, for the majority of history, has been understood only as a grand, mysterious void.
Space exploration provides us with new information about our place in the universe, as well as astronaut stories of oddities we would never expect to see if it weren't for the space suit.
1971: Orlan Space Suit, Russia
Designed in 1971, the Orlan space suit is still used for spacewalks and any movement outside of a pressurized space cabin. The suit is composed of a rigid torso and helmet frame, and has flexible limbs for increased mobility.
Unlike its American counterparts, the Orlan space suit has no external hose due to its integrated life-support system.
1981: EMU Suit, United States
The Extravehicular Mobility Unit is designed for use outside of the pressurized space shuttle cabin. It features 14 layers of material each serving different purposes, ranging from cooling to pressurizing and thermal protection. Unlike all previous space suits, the EMU is not custom fitted to a single person, but rather meant for multiple uses.
1973-2018: Sokol Space Suit, USSR
The Russian Sokol space suit was first designed in 1973 after three astronauts suffocated on Soyuz 11 in 1971. The lightweight space suit, which is still used today, is internally pressurized and has integrated shoes, though the gloves and helmet are removable.
Through a system of tubes and electrical cables, the suit can be worn for up to 30 hours in a pressurized environment, or two hours within a vacuum. It was designed not for spacewalks, but for use within the Soyuz rocket during moments of low cabin pressure during the rocket's ascent and descent.
1988-98: Launch Entry Suit, United States
Similar to its Russian counterpart, the bright orange Sokol space suit, the American Launch Entry Suit is intended for exit and re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. It was designed with a pressure-sealed visor and helmet collar, and an integrated anti-gravity suit to prevent the wearer's blood from pooling in their lower body during re-entry.