On Simulated Missions, Fake Spacesuits Are a Real Challenge

By Kate Greene | June 7, 2013 12:09 pm

­This is the eighth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

The simulated spacesuit, worn here by Kate Greene, was designed and built by Dave Akin’s team at the University of Maryland. Credit: Sian Proctor

On June 3, 1965, astronaut Ed White pushed out of the Gemini 4 capsule and floated into space. White, the first American to conduct an extra-vehicular activity, or EVA, was tasked with testing a hand-held maneuvering unit, taking pictures and generally making history. Twenty-three minutes after his exit, White reluctantly re-entered his spaceship, disappointed he couldn’t stay out longer, but exhilarated all the same.

As a crew on a simulated Mars mission, part of our job is to conduct EVAs here on Earth. The thinking is this: Astronauts on a Mars mission will need to go outside for routine maintenance, to study geology and to explore their surroundings. A simulated mission should provide that kind of workload. Also, it’s good to stretch the legs, get some natural light and take a break from day-to-day monotony.

This means that once or twice a week, a team of two or three HI-SEAS crew members leaves the confines of the dome to walk the lava fields of Mauna Loa. And yes, we do it in spacesuits. Or, more precisely, we wear spacesuit simulators. Our suits are nowhere near robust enough to protect a person in the vacuum of space.

A curious thing happened, though, on the way to the airlock: I learned there is no clear best spacesuit simulator for simulated missions like ours. In fact, the discussions about the most appropriate styles for spacesuit simulators are almost always contentious.

Wardrobe contention

In one camp are people who are interested in suits that mimic real spacesuits’ function as closely as possible, while putting less emphasis on looks. For instance, suits should be almost completely closed off to the environment, and should be bulky and cumbersome. But they needn’t always align with the classic concept of a spacesuit: They don’t need to be white or silver; they don’t need to have a dome-shaped helmet; and they don’t necessarily even need a separate “life-support” backpack if it could be built into the suit itself. For the people in this camp, fidelity trumps photogenic.

In another camp are people who are interested in preserving the classic spacesuit look, often to the detriment of fidelity. They are based on flight suits and are likely to come with domed helmets and separate backpacks. They tend not to be airtight and sometimes provide quite a bit of access to the outside environment. Depending on who you are, these suits either make you feel more like an astronaut or make you feel like you’re wearing a costume.

Kate Greene and Oleg Abramov traverse a lava field en route to a lava tube. Credit: Simon Engler

When the HI-SEAS mission started, our main option for spacesuit simulators were those that fell into the former category: retrofitted, green hazmat suits that are closed off to the environment except for small fans for ventilation and cooling. But there have been problems. The suits aren’t just bulky and cumbersome; they actually don’t fit smaller crew members. And the built-in faceplate is oversized and uncomfortable, and sometimes obstructs visibility. Additionally, the fans don’t cool as expected; people overheat and faceplates fog.

Still, we wear them. And I actually enjoyed the challenge of maneuvering in such a clumsy, fogged-up suit on a recent geological expedition. (We explored the edges of a lava tube skylight, essentially a giant hole in the ground that leads to a cave created by a lava flow from long ago. More on that in a future post.) But I will readily admit that these suits don’t look good on camera. And in a simulated mission, it’s not necessarily the photos of the crew sitting down for dinner that people will remember. For better or for worse, the photos that count are of the habitat and the crew in spacesuits.

New suits

Kate, wearing the new suit, takes notes with the HI-SEAS habitat in the background. Credit: Sian Proctor

And so when we got word a few weeks into the mission that a team from the University of Maryland was interested in having us test its spacesuit simulator, we jumped at the chance. The suit comes with a separate helmet and backpack that holds a ventilation and cooling system. It’s white. It’s puffy like spacesuits are, but still fits most crewmembers well, and it has an excellent isolating effect, even if it isn’t completely airtight. In other words, it’s traditional and looks good.

This new suit isn’t perfect either. It uses a water-cooled vest to keep the torso from overheating, but arms and legs get hot fast. Also, the power supply for ventilation seems to lack a certain oomph. And the helmet doesn’t connect to the collar with a tight seal.

The crew is collaborating with the team at the University of Maryland to offer suggestions for improvements and to try out fixes where we can. In addition, we’ve suggested improvements for the hazmat suits that include separate helmets. We hope to try modified versions of both suits before the mission ends.

Clearly each spacesuit simulator has advantages and disadvantages. Personally, at the start of this mission, my opinion was that any spacesuit looks a little goofy if it’s on a person who isn’t actually in space. But after wearing the Maryland simulator, I’ve had to adjust my stance. With that helmet on my head and that pack on my back, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of EVA exhilaration—even with my feet planted firmly on the ground.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mars on Earth, Top posts
  • Incogneato76

    Why not use the real thing?

    • kbinsted

      For a couple of reasons. First, the ‘real thing’ doesn’t exist yet – we don’t yet have a functional spacesuit that would be appropriate for exploring the surface of Mars. The ones developed for the Moon or the ISS wouldn’t do the trick (very different environments).

      Second, even if we had a Mars suit, it wouldn’t be usable on Earth. It would be three times as heavy as on Mars, for example.

      • kbinsted

        Oh, and third: flight hardware is very expensive! For this study, we need at least four suits for four months, which would break the budget if we were using ‘real’ suits.

        Fourth: pressurized suits have hazards of their own, and we don’t want to expose our crew to unnecessary risk. If a suit is protecting you from a hazardous environment, fine; but if the suit itself is the hazard, it’s not worth the higher fidelity.

      • SixSixSix

        Silly, then fill them with helium so they float enough to make up for the difference. That and everybody can practice sounding like real Martians, who apparently are closely related to ducks. Honest.

  • Terry Mulcahy

    Sigh. Wish I was there.

  • Disgusting World

    They can pretend all they want. But once it gets real then everything changes. All this costuming is nothing more then publicity for the mission, if it ever comes to fruition at all.

  • http://www.zuzkalight.com/ Chris__L

    There is no reason a simulated spacesuit can not both appear as we imagine them to be and be higher fidelity in function.


Field Notes

Firsthand reports from DISCOVER correspondents covering science as it happens.

About Kate Greene

Kate Greene is a San Francisco-based science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Discover magazine, The Economist, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. She is presently a crewmember of HI-SEAS (Hawaiian space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a 120-day simulated Mars mission, during which she will live on the rocky slopes of the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa inside a two-story dome, eating astronaut food. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. Gastronaut’s not bad either. Her Internet home is kategreene.net.


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