The Visual Evolution Of Space Suits

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.

Photo: NASA / NASA / Wikimedia Commons

  • 1935: Escafandra Estratonautica, Spain

    1935: Escafandra Estratonautica, Spain
    Photo: Nationaal Archief / Wikimedia Commons / No Restrictions

    An early predecessor to the modern space suit, the Herrera space suit was designed by Spanish military engineer Emilio Herrera Linares for an open-basket balloon stratospheric flight. The rubberized silk suit featured a three-layered glass panel, a metallic frame, and a closed-circuit heating system.

  • 1961-63: Mercury Space Suit, United States

    Initially designed as a suit for US military pilots, the Mercury space suit's lightweight and highly mobile design was intended for use in unpressurized, high-alititude planes but proved a good starting point for the Mercury space project.

    Like the Navy Mark IV, the Mercury space suit was designed as a safety precaution in case the ship's cabin rapidly depressurized.

  • 1961-63: SK-1 Space Suit, USSR

    The SK-1 was the first space suit ever used for its intended purpose and to its full capactiy. The suit was pressurized and featured a nondetachable helmet visored helmet, a life support system, and an inflatable rubber collar in case of an emergency water landing.

    The suit was specifically developed for the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, but was also used in the later Vostok missions.

  • 1964: Gemini Space Suit, United States

    The Gemini space suit's major improvement from the Mercury model was its flexibility. Rather than fabric-type joints, the Gemini model combined Neoprene-coated nylon airbladders and a link-net restraint layer, which allowed for more mobility when pressurized.

  • 1965: Berkut Space Suit, USSR

    The Berkut space suit improved on its predecessor, the SK-1, with an internal life-support system. Rather than an employing an external umbilical cord to supply air into the suit, oxygen was circulated through an open-cycle environmental control system between oxygen tanks - located in the suit's backpack - and the rest of the suit.

  • 1966-69: Yastreb Space Suit, USSR

    The Yastreb space suit was the first Russian suit designed specifically for extravehicular activity. As such, the suit was designed to be flexible and lightweight. It had an external pulley system, which provided extra mobility, and a compact life support system in order to easily maneuver around the smaller Soyuz rockets.