One of my favourite books as a kid was Robert A Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. It was the last of his ‘juveniles’, written in 1958 as a deliberate riff on space opera and 1950s teen culture.
It’s set in an undefined ‘near future’ and pivots around a spacesuit won by teen genius Kip Russell, which he restores before being kidnapped by aliens (it was better than it sounds). Heinlein described the engineering of the suit in exquisite detail.
When I read the book in the early 1970s that wasn’t remarkable – after all, by then astronauts had already walked on the Moon. Of course spacesuits were normal. In fact Heinlein had exactly described how they worked, give or take a few wrinkles (he proposed air-flow cooling, whereas actual suits are water-cooled).
What didn’t occur to me then was that he did all this nearly a decade ahead of ILC Dover (then part of Playtex – yep, the underwear manufacturer) building the actual Apollo A7L moon suits, with life-support systems from Hamilton Standard.
How did Heinlein do it? Apart from being a genius sci-fi writer, he was also an engineer who had worked on pressure suits in the early 1940s, largely on the back of high-altitude flight that required them. The physics of keeping someone alive in a flexible suit, against vacuum, temperature and all the rest were well known, and Heinlein had hands-on experience of trying to design something to do it.
You know – that old adage…write what you know? Well, he knew pressure suits. And the Apollo suits didn’t come out of a vacuum, as it were – they were products of around three decades of development and experience, broadly starting with Wiley Post’s pressure suit of the early 1930s, made by B F Goodrich.
Early pressure suits were clumsy affairs. You couldn’t help but be a klutz in them. Post couldn’t even bend his limbs when his suit was pressurised. A lot of the work in the 1930s and early 1940s – which Heinlein got involved with – was about getting that bendability. It was done largely through constant-volume ‘bellows’ joints, a technique still used today. However, it was still clunky.
Experience and new-tech fabrics by the 1950s didn’t much reduce that. But they did make the suits practical, safe and effective. By then BF Goodrich was building practical, daily-use pressure suits for navy aviators – in fact the early Mercury astronauts used modified and custom-fitted Mk IV Navy suits. However, they couldn’t exit the spaceship. And they were still clumsy.
The biggest point of clumsiness – one never overcome to this day – involved the gloves. They had all the problems of the limb-bend issue, in multiple – and that had to be resolved in miniature, all the while making the glove rugged enough to not pop or abrade during use. One of the engineering challenges in the early spacecraft involved making the controls workable by an astronaut wearing those gloves – which is why the Apollo control board was over-size, and why most of the controls were fitted with ‘arm/disarm’ switches and miniature railings to protect them against accidental knocking.
So yeah, spacesuits are always going to be clunky. And the clumsiest of all are the EVA suits. Building one required a lot more work than just building a bendable pressure garment. What emerged was effective but pretty clunky – a bit like wearing a pressurised sleeping bag with a massive backpack, mittens and a bucket on your head. There were incidents, as when Buzz Aldrin accidentally broke the ascent engine arm switch with his backpack during Apollo 11, while trying to move in that clunky suit in the phone-booth sized LM cabin. (They took off, in the end, by removing the broken switch and jamming a ballpoint pen into the hole to push the circuit breaker shut.)
For all that, the Apollo A7L moon suits worked pretty well, but moon dirt got into the zip fasteners during donning and doffing after EVA’s, abrading the seals and sending leak rates up. On the last and longest Apollo EVA’s, in 1972, the zips found to be close to failure after the end of the mission.
But since then nobody has come up with anything better. Today’s suits are just as clunky.
Heinlein’s putative spacesuit even included accessible water, food and medical supplies that Kip could take by turning his head to the appropriate nozzle inside the suit. That was another thing that happened in real life – the later Apollo astronauts went out for 8 or 9 hour moonwalks with an energy bar and a drink pouch velcroed into the helmet. They also had real-world problems – on Apollo 16, Charles Duke’s orange juice leaked into his helmet, leaving a sticky mess.
There was just one thing that Heinlein elided. Sanitary measures. In the real world this took up as much thought as any other part of the spacesuit, and I’m sure he was well aware of the issue. But it wasn’t something to be written about in 1950s YA literature. The actual answer? Well, it got a complex acronym, but basically the modern spacesuit includes a feature that works absolutely reliably. It’s simple, and it’s efficient. Yup, for all the super-high tech and cleverness that goes into them, spacesuits have a special feature for dealing with those awkward moments on EVA. Nappies. Diapers , if you’re American.
If you want to check out my own concept of a future suit, it’s described in my novella ‘Missionary’ – one of seven stories by seven authors in the first Endless Worlds compilation. Out on Kindle and in paperback.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016