Spacesuits in fiction

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Science fiction authors have designed imaginary spacesuits for their characters almost since the beginning of fiction set in space.

Often, comic book creators seem unaware of the effects of internal pressure which tends to inflate a spacesuit in vacuum, and draw their imaginary spacesuits as hanging in folds like a boilersuit; this can often be seen in the Dan Dare stories, where the artist often drew from actual or photographed posed actors. Many space story writers merely mention a "spacesuit" without considering or describing design details, in the same way as they mention a raygun or a spaceship without considering how its mechanism would work.

The breathing apparatus which is part of the Primary Life Support System of real space suits is always a rebreather type system. However, in illustrations in fiction such as comics, a spacesuit's life support system is often largely composed of two big backpack cylinders, as if it was open circuit; at least one fictional scenario has liquid breathing spacesuits.

Early concepts[edit]

Edison's Conquest of Mars[edit]

The spacesuit described in Edison's Conquest of Mars

From Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898):

...since it was probable that necessity would arise for occasionally quitting the interior of the electrical ships, Mr. Edison had provided for this emergency by inventing an air-tight dress constructed somewhat after the manner of a diver's suit, but of much lighter material. Each ship was provided with several of these suits, by wearing which one could venture outside the car [spaceship] even when it was beyond the atmosphere of the earth...Provision had been made to meet the terrific cold which we knew would be encountered the moment we had passed beyond the atmosphere—that awful absolute zero which men had measured by anticipation, but never yet experienced—by a simple system of producing within the air-tight suits a temperature sufficiently elevated to counteract the effects of the frigidity without. By means of long, flexible tubes, air could be continually supplied to the wearers of the suits, and by an ingenious contrivance a store of compressed air sufficient to last for several hours was provided for each suit, so that in case of necessity the wearer could throw off the tubes connecting him with the air tanks in the car...Inside the headpiece of each of the electrical suits was the mouthpiece of a telephone. This was connected with a wire which, when not in use, could be conveniently coiled upon the arm of the wearer. Near the ears, similarly connected with wires, were telephonic receivers...When two persons wearing the air-tight dresses wished to converse with one another it was only necessary for them to connect themselves by the wires, and conversation could then be easily carried on.

This illustration of the suit appears to be skintight (note the wrinkles), and to have a soft hood with a built-in fullface mask, rather than a hard helmet, although according to the story the suits had helmets.

This common early idea for a spacesuit would have not worked in reality for several reasons:

  • The suits have no constant volume joints to prevent the suits from ballooning under their interior pressure.
  • The suits have no gloves.
  • The rubberized material of a diving suit would have quickly become brittle due to loss of volatiles in space vacuum; and also due to cold making the rubber brittle when out of sunlight, if they radiate heat away faster than the spaceman's body heat warms them.

Skintight spacesuits (skinsuits) appear in the original Buck Rogers comics published from 1928 on. This comic was so popular that expressions such as "Buck Rogers outfit" for real protective suits that look somewhat like spacesuits entered common usage.

With the rise of the Science fiction pulp magazines in the 1920s many depictions of imaginary spacesuits were created from scratch by artists such as Frank R. Paul, often appearing on the covers of the magazines. Very often these artists' creations were absurd, with such errors as a helmet whose neck hole is too narrow for the head to get through.

Often fictional spacesuits are drawn with two large backpack cylinders as their only life-support gear, as if the exhaled gas is vented to space as in an ordinary open-circuit scuba set.

The Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith features armored spacesuits used in hand-to-hand combat. Some especially heavily armored spacesuits in the series use motors to help the wearer move about.

After World War II[edit]

Following World War II, fictional spacesuits were influenced both by the real life pressure suits and G-suits which had seen use during the war for high-altitude aviation and also by the speculative articles on space travel which were published in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's Weekly by such space pioneers as Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley and which featured carefully considered spacesuit designs.

In films[edit]

Some early space travel fiction films showed characters in spacesuits much more often than Star Trek and afterwards.

The First Men in the Moon[edit]

The First Men in the Moon: the 1899 model space suits.

In H.G. Wells's original novel, The First Men in the Moon, published in 1901, the Moon has a breathable atmosphere during its two-week-long day and spacesuits are not needed; the spacecraft has an airtight hatch, but no airlock.

The First Men in the Moon: the 1964 model space suits.

In the film version, made in 1964, the Moon has no atmosphere and no surface vegetation. Two types of spacesuits are featured.

  • During the events of the story which take place in the 1890s, standard diving dresses, each fitted with a 1960s type aqualung cylinder worn on the back, are used as spacesuits. No provision is made to prevent the suits from ballooning in the vacuum, or to protect the hands from the vacuum.
  • The film depicts the 1960s astronaut spacesuits as close copies of a British high-altitude pressure suit of the sort intended to be used aboard the TSR-1 and fitted with a 1960s-type aqualung cylinder instead of the NASA-type life support backpack which came into common usage a few years after the movie was made.

Dan Dare[edit]

In the Dan Dare comic series, which started in April 1950 in the "Eagle" comic, the standard Spacefleet spacesuit had no backpack, had a corselet as per Standard Diving Dress, and its life-support system was stated to be between the layers of a double-walled helmet.[2] The spacesuits used in the Dan Dare scenario "Operation Saturn" by the villain Blasco are a different design and have small life-support backpacks. The Dan Dare stories also show various alien spacesuits.

Have Space Suit, Will Travel[edit]

1977 edition cover [1] (see [1] for another cover image)

Author Robert A. Heinlein's novel Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958) drew both on these contemporary articles and on his experience designing pressure suits during World War II and featured a detailed description of a very realistic space suit with constant volume joints and fixed helmet and shoulder yoke, which was entered through a frontal gasketed zipper (similar to that in a drysuit).

Front cover illustrations (one shown here, one linked to in its caption) for the novel obviously inspired by contemporary diving apparatus show its life-support backpack as a correctly drawn old-type open-circuit two-cylinder aqualung as used for scuba diving with manifold and large round regulator and A-clamp. The artist avoided the error found in most comic-strip drawings of old-type aqualungs, of drawing each breathing tube coming directly from a cylinder top and no regulator. But to make this type of aqualung (as shown here) work in space, its regulator's existing perforated "wet-side" cover would have to be replaced by a sealed cover with a spring-loaded exit valve to keep a breathable pressure on the "wet" side of the regulator diaphragm. And the whole breathing system would have to be checked for leaks which would be harmless in scuba diving but would blow in space vacuum.

  • On the first image the breathing tubes run to a control panel on his chest, and the regulator can be seen. The image shows two spacesuits, whose helmets differ. One has a worklight on top; the other has two worklights, one on each side, and on top what is intended to represent a radio spike antenna and microwave horn antenna (two different antennas are also shown in a second book illustration, though the "microwave horn" antenna is incorrectly drawn attached by its wide end like an animal horn, instead of the correct musical-horn-like shape of a microwave horn antenna).
  • On the second image the breathing tubes run to each side of the "chin" of his helmet, and the regulator is hidden behind his head.

The spacesuits in these drawings differ much, but all depict the helmet base as being wide enough for the wearer to get it on over his head, showing that their artists had paid little attention to the writer's detailed descriptions.

Diver with old-type aqualung

In a description of the spacesuit Heinlein appears to be confused about the various effects of oxygen toxicity and bends and nitrogen narcosis.[2]

Heinlein's description of pressure regulation came very close to the experience of astronauts in the Apollo program. His characters preferred to keep the pressure of their suits just high enough for survival, but not high enough to make it difficult to move around, much like the selected design pressure range of the real Apollo A7L suits.

The life support system of the suits in Have Space Suit—Will Travel was very similar to the backup Oxygen Purge System on the real Apollo Primary Life Support System, the only major difference being that the Apollo suits had a largely automatic pressure regulator, and Heinlein's suit had manual pressure regulation.

One major component of modern pressure suit Primary Life Support System backpacks which he missed was the lithium hydroxide canister which absorbs carbon dioxide from the air in the suit: see rebreather. Without this, his suit's breathing apparatus would have to be open circuit and limited to approximately two hours on a filling of oxygen or air, with the time varying according to exertion and cylinder size and his body size.

Another was the cooling system. He correctly recognised that overheating would be a major problem for the wearer of the suit. His cooling system was the same as the Apollo oxygen purge system: waste oxygen by letting it flow at a high rate and use it to dump heat. In practice, real suits used a water supply feeding a sublimator to provide cooling.

In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls the suits are strongly influenced by experience in the space program. He correctly describes a technique for helping an injured man in a pressure suit by decompressing the suit for less than a minute. Earlier books such as Rocket Ship Galileo described horrible injuries for people decompressed for short times.

In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein has people going onto the moon surface for about half a day in daylight and suffering from radiation exposure. In practice, overheating was the biggest risk of lunar surface operations, and cooling systems were easy to build.

Perry Rhodan[edit]

The front cover of the first issue of the German pulp science fiction series Perry Rhodan, published in 1961, shows a typical science-fiction open-circuit design with two large backpack cylinders instead of a modern life-support pack.

Armored space suits[edit]

  • Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers (1959) famously featured armored power-assisted spacesuit-like battlesuits used in combat. The suits are arguably one of the first examples of powered armor to be written of in American literature. The Japanese anime OVA film Starship Troopers (1988) based on the novel also used powered armor suits inspired by Heinlein's example, but they appeared differently and incorporated built-in weaponry. However, the 1997 film's interpretation did not use powered armor, much to the consternation of the book's fans.
  • Heroine of Nintendo's Metroid series of video games (1986–Present), Samus Aran, is another example of a character in fiction utilizing an armored space suit. Known as the Power Suit, Samus' original suit it a modular powered armor developed by the bird-like Chozo race who raised Samus after her parents where killed by Space Pirates. Its capabilities are enhanced by upgrades such as the Varia and Gravity Suit. It also allows Samus to transform into a sphere called the Morph Ball. In Metroid: Zero Mission, after her original Power Suit is lost when her Gunship is shot down following her defeat of Mother Brain, it is replaced by a more powerful and ancient Power Suit she obtains from a Chozo Temple, which she uses throughout the Metroid, series up until Metroid Fusion, where it is replaced by the Fusion Suit, a suit created for Samus after she and the organic components of her Power Suit are infected by X-Parasites. Though man-made, the Fusion Suit retains the module nature of Samus' Chozo Power Suit.

Self-sealing and limb-constriction suits[edit]

  • In Ray Bradbury's short story Kaleidoscope (1949), used in The Illustrated Man (1951) occurs one of the first uses of self-sealing spacesuits which automatically tourniquet limbs to keep the wearer alive and pressurized, in cases of holes or amputations (in the story, occurring as a result of meteoroids in space).
  • A self-repair style of suit is briefly mentioned in Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner. Spacesuits used by lunar explorers feature 'decompression sphincters' that clamp down and seal off any areas of a spacesuit that suffer damage. Repair patches or returning to the base must be achieved quickly before anhydrous gangrene destroys the area exposed to vacuum.
  • Joe Haldeman's novel The Forever War (1974) featured armored vacuum combat suits which were similar in principle but more advanced in design. Because the novel takes place over the timespan of several hundred years, the evolution of the battle suits can be observed and commented on by the lead character throughout with new features introduced — such as emergency hydraulic-powered joints which sever the limb of a soldier and inject anesthetics and blood plasma if enough damage is inflicted and a risk of decompression is apparent.

After first real space flights[edit]

After the establishment of NASA, and the first space missions, fictional spacesuits tended to follow real spacesuit design, including such features as a large rectangular backpack to hold life support components, except in low-budget science fiction movies and comics which were still inspired more by imagination than by reality.

Dune film[edit]

During the production of the spacesuits and stillsuits for the film Dune, the prop and costume designers stated a need to avoid "the standard outer-space stuff ... that sort of NASA look".[3]

Gerry Anderson's UFO series[edit]

CGI image of alien spacesuits shown in the television series UFO.

The Gerry Anderson's UFO series of the late 1960s/early 1970s features two types of spacesuit:

The design of the alien spacesuits was revised during filming; in some episodes they are partly covered with bright metallic chainmail, and in some they are as per the image shown. The studio which made the series seems to have had only two alien spacesuit costumes. In the episode "Ordeal" where two aliens carry a human (Foster) who is in an alien spacesuit, one of the aliens has to be out of shot, or else 3 alien spacesuits would have been needed. The helmet splits into front and back halves to get it on over his head.


Space: 1999[edit]

In this other Anderson's series (a spin-off of UFO), spacesuits are orange and yellow with a white mechanical object on the torso of any astronaut and with an openable personalised helmet; often the episodes feature a recurring blooper: the astronaut's helmet is accidentally open.

Gundam[edit]

Spacesuits are commonly used in the Gundam anime metaseries, but are often renamed to avoid confusion with space-use mobile suits. In the Universal Century timeline, spacesuits are called "normal suits"; the After Colony timeline calls them "astrosuit". Two types of spacesuit are frequently seen - as well as the more traditional bulky style, mobile suit pilots wear a thinner lighter suit, better designed for operating a mobile suit's controls. Gundam spacesuits often have a pouch full of adhesive strips, used to temporarily seal tears in the suit (as demonstrated in Mobile Suit Gundam) or cracks in the helmet (as demonstrated in Char's Counterattack).

Perry Rhodan[edit]

The German pulp science fiction series Perry Rhodan features a type of spacesuit known as a SERUN, for Semi-Reconstituent Recycling Unit. This suit contains advanced recycling systems that can provide the necessary oxygen, water, and food to keep the inhabitant alive for weeks. It also contains a sophisticated computerized medical treatment system, antigrav units for propulsion, and a generator for a defense screen.

Planet 51[edit]

Main article: Earth in Planet 51

Interstellar[edit]

In the 2014 film Interstellar, NASA uses futuristic spacesuits during the Lazarus missions and during Cooper and Brand's missions. Cooper also uses a black spacesuit at the film's end.

Scorpion[edit]

In the episode "The Old College Try", to survive in subzero temperatures near a quantum computer, Walter wears an A7L spacesuit from the Apollo program.

Sylvester and Happy wears vintage spacesuits, too, but they are probably fictional (like the two character themselves).

The Martian[edit]

In Andy Weir's 2011 novel The Martian, astronauts from the Ares missions use white spacesuits to walk on Mars' surface.

Movie adaptation[edit]

The 2015 adaptation of the novel, directed by Ridley Scott, features these suits:

Ares III spacesuit

Used by Watney during his period on Mars, this is a small orange and grey spacesuit, used with a GoPro-like suitcam, a vocal device which signals about malfunctions, and a backpack. Watney crash his helmet during the explosion of the Hab, but it is replaced by another Ares III helmet (during the rest of the period of Mars) and an Ares IV helmet (during the spaceflight).

Hermes/Ares IV spacesuit

Used by the Hermes crew and projected also for the Ares IV one, is a specialized spacesuit used during the Mars-Earth and Earth-Mars spaceflights on NASA's Hermes spacecraft. Commander Melissa Lewis also uses a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) during the film's end.

Ares V spacesuit

Used by Rick Martinez and the other Ares V astronauts during the end credits of the film, is another suit, ssen only during the launch of the Ares V mission.

Skintight spacesuits[edit]

The potential for greater mobility and simpler operation with a skintight spacesuit, generally referred to as a space activity suit or mechanical counterpressure suit, make this type of space suit an attractive choice for fiction, where flexibility of use can be a boon to plot development.

Some space story writers whose work mentions flexible skin-tight spacesuits include:

  • The spacesuits in early Buck Rogers comics seem to be skintight.
  • Jerry Pournelle, who has been extensively involved in analysis and design of space technology systems. Pournelle envisions a layered design where the inner flexible suit can be overlain with various kinds of thermal protection or armor, for protection against meteoroids or space battle damage, in the same way a flak jacket protects the occupants of a warplane. Skintight spacesuits first appeared in recent science fiction in Pournelle's novel Exiles To Glory in 1977.
  • A. Bertram Chandler.
  • Grant Callin's Saturnalia and A Lion on Tharthee feature 'micropore suits' which use minute gas bubbles in foam rather than mechanical tension to provide counterpressure in vacuum.
  • Stephen Baxter's Manifold series, notably Manifold: Time, covers the technical aspects of using a skintight suit for short EVAs, including the need to don the suit without creasing to prevent embolisms.
  • In Larry Niven's Known Space, skintights are the preferred type of spacesuit used by belters in the 22nd and 23rd century. They often decorated them with elaborate (and expensive) torso paintings as a form of heraldry. Pournelle's design in particular is featured in some of Niven's later Ringworld novels.
  • Victor Koman in Kings of the High Frontier.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson used suits called "Walkers" that work on a similar principle for Martian surface exploration in the Mars Trilogy novels.
  • Roger Leloup in the adventures of Yoko Tsuno
  • In Spider & Jeanne Robinson's novel Stardance (1979) they played a significant role.
  • Skinsuits feature rather prominently in the Honorverse books by David Weber.
  • In EA Games's Dead Space series, engineers and miners use an airtight suit called a RIG when working in the vacuum of space or an otherwise unsafe environment.
  • In L. Neil Smith's novel The Venus Belt, the protagonist describes in some detail a skin-tight Smartsuit which is capable of furnishing not only life support in various types of hostile environments, but also limited medical treatment for the wearer. The suit also functions as a powerful wearable computer, with the circuitry, displays, and controls integrated into the fabric of the suit. In the novel, the suit is, as a matter of tradition, included in the price of a space-liner ticket to Ceres. The character notes that a properly fitted Smartsuit leaves the wearer feeling "completely naked...a testament to the makers' art." Most spacefarers live in their Smartsuits for indefinite periods, as the suit can handle waste management and hygiene for the wearer.
  • In Elecia White's novel Pony Up, the protagonist utilized a next-generation NASA "skinsuit" during a protracted space walk.
  • Steven Gould, in his 2013 novel Exo, the fourth in his Jumper series, centered the ambitions of his young protagonist, Cent, on the use of a mechanical counterpressure suit to allow her to teleport into space.

Symbionts[edit]

Spider and Jeanne Robinson's novel Starseed (the second volume of their Stardance trilogy) and John Varley's short story Equinoctial (from his collection Picnic on Nearside) both feature alien symbionts which act as living space suits, supplying their wearer with oxygen and recycling waste gases and deriving their energy from solar power. James Blish's novella How Beautiful With Banners features a spacesuit formed from the protein coat of a genetically modified virus. The suit is able to be controlled by small electrical impulses, supplied by a control box mounted on the wearer's belt.

Space fiction without prominent use of spacesuits[edit]

In some space fiction, space suits are largely absent. Spacesuits were seen only once in the original Star Trek TV series (1966–1969), in the episode "The Tholian Web", mostly due to television budget constraints. They play a more significant part in several of the movies: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), and several episodes of the TV series Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). Space suits are far more frequently used in the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise (2001–2005), though they also doubled as environmental-hazard suits.

Spacesuits appear in all the original Star Wars movies, but only used by pilots of fighter-type spacecraft. Spacesuits used outside spacecraft occur in some Star Wars novels and comics.

Force fields instead of spacesuits[edit]

Some fiction scenarios, instead of spacesuits, have a personal force field which keeps a bubble of breathable atmosphere around the user. Examples are:

References[edit]

  1. ^ 1977, Ballantine Books, paperback, ISBN 0-345-26071-6
  2. ^ page 27 of the February 2005 edition (ISBN 1-4165-0549-0)
  3. ^ pp 69 & 71, The Making of Dune, by Ed Naha, publ. R.H.Allen 1984, ISBN 0-426-19641-4

External links[edit]