Skintight Space Suits for Mars: What Kind of Suits Do Astronauts Need to Survive on the Red Planet?

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“On July 21, 1969, only 21 layers of fabric, most gossamer-thin, stood between the skin of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum,” de Monchaux writes about the suits the astronauts wore on their first steps on mars. SSPL/Getty

The space suit is torn between humanity’s two chief desires: exploration and protection. None more so than the one some of us will be wearing on Mars—which could determine astronauts’ survival while farther from Earth than humans have ever traveled before. But what people end up wearing on Mars is not just about being protected: What’s the point of going all the way to the red planet if we can’t act as humans do? We need to be able to bend down on one knee to collect a rock sample, or use our uniquely opposable thumbs to grip a tool and make a repair.

Space suits are as important as thruster types and rocket fuels—and maybe more so—for the eventual success of a mission to Mars. After all, the suit’s capabilities and limitations will determine what kind of work we can do once we have gone to all the trouble of getting there, says Dr. Sheyna Gifford, who lived for 12 months in the Mars simulation HI-SEAS IV atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea and has tested suits of various kinds. A good space suit is like a personal space ship: It must keep you alive but also help you live, says Gifford. It has to be practical: "Can you tie cords? Turn handles that open and close water lines? Does the suit keep you from tripping and prevent falls while still allowing you to carry water, mounted lights and cameras? It must have components that aren’t just robust but are replaceable, swappable and upgradeable," says Gifford. The challenges are pretty well agreed upon by space suit experts, but how to address them has brought two competing—and very different—types of suit design to the forefront.

These new suits aren’t like the flight suits of yore, but understanding a bit about space suit history helps us understand how we got to where we are today and where suit design will take us.

To deal with pilots passing out when G-forces pushed blood to their extremities, Japanese dive-bombers during World War II wrapped their bodies in tight elastic. That pressure on the body kept blood in the brain, which was critical during superfast maneuvers. Later, gas-pressurized suits were developed. Described as a “tire shaped like a man,” they kept internal pressure at a comfortable level for the person inside it. The first space suits, for the Mercury and Gemini missions, were modifications of these high-altitude pilot’s outfits. These work well—until the person inside that blob of air and rubber has to move. Each time he or she lifts an arm or takes a step, that life-saving pressure also pushes back. Think of walking around inside a body-shaped basketball—that’s the gas-pressurized suit. It’s not a big deal for a relatively stationary pilot, but it’s tougher on a more mobile astronaut. The extra work every time an astronaut moves a joint can be exhausting over time.  

07_21_MarsClothes_01 After decades building foundation garments for women, ILC (more commonly known by their consumer brand name "Playtex") had plenty of experience in dealing with pressure, movement and the vagaries of the human body, ultimately developing the space suit to used in NASA's Apollo space program. Ralph Morse/LIFE/Getty

When astronauts prepared for the moon landing in the 1960s, the gas-pressurized flight suit was a proven technology, so it was refined. But the basic ideas weren’t rethought; it was still all about a human in a pressurized suit with exterior protections. However, the moon suit needed to be tough for walking around the surface, not just floating in space. Hard suits, which were still pressurized within, were one solution. Reminiscent of medieval armor, these suits didn’t even touch the astronaut inside, save for the hands and feet, and were more comfortable for that reason. Those who tested them said it was more like being inside a suit, rather than wearing it as a piece of clothing. The hard suit and its several iterations really looked the part of the brawny American astronaut—think Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story .

Despite its rugged good looks, though, the hard suit was ultimately deemed unsafe—one puncture, by a moon rock or a misused tool, meant disaster. “When a hard shell fails, it fails spectacularly,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo . Softness—and layering, which equals safety via redundancy—means the person inside the suit is less vulnerable than beneath a hard carapace.

It was Playtex’s soft suit design—so different from the armor-like hard suits—that went to the moon. From its multi-decade history of building foundation garments for women, the company had plenty of experience in dealing with pressure, movement and the vagaries of the human body. “[T]he expertise that made such a puncture-resistant, complex latex assembly possible was the same flexible know-how that produced the world’s best-selling girdle,” de Monchaux writes. The Apollo suit’s ingenious hand-sewn layers of latex, neoprene and knitted nylons meant that the suit was, in the field, harder to breach than the hard suit—and indeed it kept our astronauts safe enough to plant that famous flag. “On July 21, 1969, only 21 layers of fabric, most gossamer-thin, stood between the skin of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum,” de Monchaux writes.

The suits astronauts will be wearing on Mars ( by 2024, Elon Musk says ) will be soft too—though there’s plenty of debate about what kind of soft. Should we stick with the gas-pressurized suit or go in a new direction altogether?