Watch Space Expert Breaks Down Spacesuits from Movies | The Breakdown


[dramatic music]

Yeah, okay, kid.

[air gushes]

Yes, in principle you could do that,

but you aren’t going to design a space suit

that could be that easily disabled and destroyed.

Hi, GQ, this is Cathy Lewis.

I’m Curator of Space Suits

at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum,

and this is The Breakdown.

[upbeat music]

First up, Star Trek.

[dramatic music]

Star Trek was made during the height

of the Apollo program.

So they weren’t gonna use space suits

that looked like Apollo space suits.

They had to reinforce the idea

that they were sentries into the future.

So what they have are featured of new materials,

a transparent yet completely impermeable material

that would be fantastic to use and make from,

but it’s something that doesn’t exist in our world today.

These helmets differ from what we expect as helmets.

They’re not sort of round-shaped to the head,

they’re sort of a square-shaped.

They have a very wide field of vision

that not only gives the hypothetical astronaut

the ability to view the world,

but it also gives the audience

the ability to view the astronaut’s face

so you can see who the cast is, who is speaking.

This is an actual Apollo bubble helmet.

When I complain about helmets being too large,

this is what I mean.

This is not so much bigger than your head.

And one of the tests of pilots and astronauts

is seeing if they can put the helmet on

and not feel claustrophobic.

Astronauts can look up, look down and see their toes,

look to the left and right of themselves,

but they’ve not got a whole lot of space

between the nose and the edge of the helmet.

What’s fascinating is whatever material

they’re using as the face mask,

it doesn’t seem to be that type of hard,

polycarbonate material that we use in space suits today.

It seems to be some sort of flexible,

but permeable and hardened material

that is unlike something that we’ve ever seen before.

All of the tubing is on the outside of the suit,

so that must mean that the tubing that supplies oxygen,

removes the carbon dioxide, is very, very hard

and puncture resistant

because you don’t want your oxygen supply exposed

and vulnerable to any sort of accident.

So these are stretchable fabrics.

They don’t seem to be constricting,

they don’t seem to be weighty.

These aren’t heavy space suits, these are very lightweight.

The actors are able to squat down, bend over,

and move around pretty freely, pretty much as freely

as they would in their regular costume.

Gravity.

Sorry, I’m done, I’m done.

[Announcer] Kowalski, initiate emergency dismount

from the Hubble.

All right, Shariff, let’s do this.

[Shariff] Roger, Matt.

Houston, update?

[Houston] Well, we have a full on chain reaction.

It’s been confirmed that it’s the unintentional side effect

of the Russians striking one of their own satellites.

The suits that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

are wearing are replicas of the current

Space Suit Assembly Extravehicular Mobility Unit.

Nobody says that, it’s the SSA EMU.

And these are very close,

other than having the helmet expand,

they’re very close to what the astronauts use

from the space station today to perform space walks.

They’re just tethered very tightly.

They work around spacecraft

and the international space station

by climbing across handholds and footholds.

First of all, is the size of the helmet.

They make the helmet enlarged so you can see who it is

and who’s acting.

That’s a standard complaint that I have

with almost all space suit movies.

The other factor is the use of the man-maneuvering unit

that George Clooney used.

This is a technology that NASA tried during the 1980s,

and they stopped using it with the Challenger explosion

because it was too risky.

It has what engineers referred to as a single point

of failure system.

George Clooney is bouncing into very expensive,

very heavy equipment every time he goes around.

That man-maneuvering unit was made

to produce very subtle movement in space.

You don’t wanna be bouncing into spacecraft,

into the Hubble Space Telescope.

The laws of physics are still maintained up in space,

even in the movies.

That bubble helmet is very shatterproof.

It was based on designs of cockpit bubbles

from World War II and it is molded

by a liquid laminar flow molding technique,

makes it very resilient.

It’s very crack proof, it’s multilayered,

and it snugly fits over the astronaut’s head.

It’s very important to have something that is clear,

doesn’t impact the astronauts field of vision,

but also is very sturdy and holds that air

inside the space suit for the astronaut

to be able to breathe freely and look around

and see what he or she is doing.

There are certain shortcuts that the director takes

just to make to the point.

There are no liquid cooling garments.

The director uses

launch and entry suits,

which are really only made to work inside a spacecraft

with EVA suits, and that’s kind of a problem

because we like to make that distinction

for our audience to understand

that there’s a big difference

between the suit you see astronauts marching out

to a spacecraft prior to launch

and the ones that they use actually to perform spacewalks.

Alien.

[suit shuffles]

[breathes heavily]

When Sigourney Weaver climbs into the space suit,

she does it with an amazing amount of ease.

Obviously she has to do that for the plot of the movie,

but she’s not pre-breathing oxygen,

one assumes that she would need to,

in order to prepare for the all-oxygen environment

of the space suit.

She snaps it on very quickly, there are no parts.

It looks a little odd just because it looks as though

this space suit might be too big for her.

She’s barely looking over into the visor,

which is surprising given Sigourney Weaver’s height.

You wouldn’t think that she would have a space suit

that would be much larger than she.

And, once again, the helmet is really, really large,

I assume, just so we can see Sigourney Weaver’s face.

The other question I have is what is the purpose

of those openings in the helmet

towards the back of her head?

We don’t see her sealing the space suit at all,

we just see her climbing in and velcroing it up.

We don’t see a pressure layer of the suit,

the layer that, usually a rubber, or a synthetic layer

that keeps the oxygen inside that performs the purpose

of being a bladder inside the suit.

What you do see is a thermal micromedia garment layer,

that outer layer that we associate with spacesuits

and that’s to protect against particles

traveling very fast in space.

It’s also to protect against radiation from whatever source.

We’re out here someplace in the galaxy,

I don’t know where, but there’s still are going to be

sources of radiation,

some sort of solar radiation,

as opposed to existing radiation in the suit.

So that suit itself looks very bulky,

but it’s similar in the way that Apollo suits

look very bulky.

Not necessarily very heavyweight,

but thick and protective.

I remember seeing this movie as a young girl in high school

and it was really a landmark case

of having a woman being the hero of a movie.

I cheered her.

Prometheus.

Hey, Wells, take a look at this.

[alien growls]

Farfou? [alien growls]

[glass shatters]

[gasps]

The really particular egregious thing I see

about this helmet is that it shatters

and it shatters almost like glass.

One thing that engineers and technicians design helmets for

are purposely to be shatterproof.

Seeing that shattering would require

an immense amount of force,

far and more than any creature could exert

in order to shatter somebody else’s helmet.

They test helmets for this,

this sort of collision and impact.

Well, the helmet shattering implies

that the astronaut loses his or her oxygen supply.

Basically, if you lose your oxygen supply

in a vacuum or in a toxic environment,

you have about 15 seconds of consciousness left.

After that, unless somebody gets to you

and rescues you and gets you back

to a breathable atmosphere,

you have about two or three minutes before you die.

Once you’re dead, you will go through the normal things

that will happen in a depressurized environment.

Your gases will start to bubble out of your system,

you’ll form icicles in your tear ducts and in your mouth,

but pretty much you’ll be desiccated over time

and you’ll be desiccated faster than you will explode

or expand as much as we see in the movies.

So it would be near-instant death and, after that,

not really dramatic.

The Martian.

[dramatic music]

[hammer thuds]

I know for a fact that Ridley Scott worked really closely

with NASA on this movie.

There are certain protective aspects of the space suit

that are on the exterior,

which looks strange, but why not?

It’s interesting.

There are the caps over the knees and the shoulders

and the elbows, sort of like skate guards,

but these are necessary components that are embedded

in spacesuits even today,

just to make sure those exposed joints

that have to be mobile for a human being

to do meaningful work, but also have to be protected

because they are very vulnerable.

And that mobility allows the suit itself

to stretch and bend, but it has to be protected

because that stretching and bending

also allows a greater vulnerability to penetration,

to sharp objects, to falls.

The backpack, the life support backpack,

is very small to my eyes.

It’s certainly smaller than what astronauts used on the moon

and what astronauts use

onboard the International Space Station.

But that too is reasonable

when you think about it, that they made

some of the system’s more compact.

The oxygen may be compressed,

the instruments that take out the carbon dioxide in the air.

Well, NASA’s working on trying to perfect that system

to make it smaller, more compact, and rechargeable.

The only thing that I find curious and interesting

about this one is the fact that the visor,

there is a visor, which is basically a tinted sunglass,

but it’s mounted on the inside of the helmet,

not on the outside of the helmet

as it is today and has been.

So I’m wondering how he would be able to lower that visor

if he was facing the sun, because you really need that.

I don’t know if he’d reach in,

or that he had some sort of external button

that he would press to raise or lower it.

He seems to be wearing some sort of a pressure suit,

a compression suit, much like compression shorts

that you wear on a bike or performing weightlifting.

And that compression suit is keeping the pressure up

on his body.

And then the rest of the suit is dedicated

to protecting from outside threats.

So he’s got the atmosphere replacement compression

built into the suit, so we don’t see it,

so it doesn’t look as bulky.

But that’s something that engineers are working on,

NASA’s thinking about, people are working on it at MIT

and at University of North Dakota, among other places.

With the most recent Mars mission,

they have sent materials that they’re planning to use

for space suits up to Mars,

just to see how they age.

And sometime in the future,

we’ll get those materials back and be able to examine them.

Space suit engineers tend to be very cautious.

They don’t wanna use the most high-tech materials

until they know how they perform over the long-term.

They’re very concerned about protecting human lives

and knowing every possible alternative

that could arise when using the spacesuit.

Moonraker.

[dramatic music]

[Announcer] Ask for reference number seven.

Coordinator, support rest, ask for reference X15Y75.

[guns blazing]

Pause here.

There are a lot of things going on in this movie.

Many things I have questions about,

other things that are very eerily familiar.

The space suits themselves seem to be taken from suits

that were either prototypes or designs from the mid 1960s,

which isn’t surprising, but it’s very interesting.

Of course, once again, they have these fictional

men maneuvering units that have very accurate

and steady ability to maneuver the astronauts.

What really gets me is that these guys are firing

these weapons that have no recoil whatsoever,

they’re firing them and they aren’t being pushed back,

defies all sorts of physics.

The suits shown in here date back to the 1960s,

the orange suits resemble the flight suits that pilots,

high performance test pilots were wearing during the 1960s.

The silver suits in fact look very much like prototypes

that were proposed at the beginning of the Apollo program.

Those sort of large, flat, fishbowl type helmets

were used as prototypes.

You see the astronauts in the cockpit of the spacecraft

and they have this silver Metalla-size spacesuit,

which is very much resembles the mercury space suits

that we remember the mercury seven wearing

for their first American space flights.

But they also resemble suits that experimental pilots

were wearing on the X 15 as well.

It’s the suit that Neil Armstrong wore

when he got his astronaut wings before he joined NASA.

So it’s very interesting that they’ve adopted

all sorts of existing technologies

and then added it on these hypothetical

man maneuvering units and these recoilless laser guns,

pew, pew, that’s all I can say.

Destination Moon.

Check radios.

Check instruments.

Check air.

Let’s go.

I’m going to get another line.

[machine buzzing]

This is a space history classic.

This is, everyone who’s involved in the history

of space exploration has seen this movie many, many times.

The preparation for the suit, yes,

it’s not as elaborate as what we know today,

but this is in the 1950s.

They figured out a lot here.

They prepped for the suit.

They use their oxygen hoses and were breathing

inside the suits before they depressurize their spacecraft.

There are little subtle things that I’ve noticed,

and looking at it, the space suit starts to expand

a little bit as they depressurize the spacecraft.

That’s very important.

Of course, your spacesuit is going to expand

in a vacuum because it’s pressing out with the oxygen inside

and there’s nothing pressing back in.

They check their communications before they depressurize.

They’re doing all of that prep.

And then when they open the capsule door, they look out.

[dramatic music]

[Joe] Close it, Skipper.

We’ll fall out.

[Skipper] Get this through your head, Joe.

We’re in the same orbit as the ship, you can’t fall.

Let’s go.

That is the most common pause

that astronauts speak of

when they make their first space walk.

When they go out there, they do have that sensation

that they’re going to fall.

And it is very common, you get over it very quickly

because you’ve trained for it.

But if you have a lay person come out, yeah,

you’re gonna feel like you’re falling

because you are falling.

You’re orbiting the earth at a very high rate of speed,

and that orbit means that you’re falling

at a high rate of speed.

You’re just falling at a rate of speed

that takes you over the horizon as fast as you’re falling.

So you’re not gonna fall back to earth,

but you do have that falling sensation in looking out.

There are folds in the knees and the elbows

to allow mobility in a pressurized suit.

That pressurized suit goes from being sort of slack and limp

under pressure inside the spacecraft

to being a little harder to push against

when you’re pushing against that oxygen filled suit

that makes internal movement much more difficult

to push around that oxygen and the compression

that is keeping that oxygen in,

holding up against the body.

Yes, they didn’t make it all the way

to the bubble helmet design,

but that wasn’t designed until the mid 1960s.

These suits seem to be based on largely what we know

about diving suits, about flight suits for astronauts

and what we were pretty certain we knew

about the environment or space.

At this point, no one had gone into space,

not even like at the door.

So we really didn’t know what was going to happen,

what materials we need.

We knew we needed insulating materials.

We needed a way to keep the oxygen inside,

a way to continuously communicate with the ground control

and each other.

They need to speak to each other, a way to see.

We were looking at new materials,

but people at that time didn’t have an idea

what those new materials would be.

Of course, in space things don’t have a weight,

but they continue to have a mass.

So you don’t want to have something incredibly massive

that would be very prohibitive to motion,

to move around.

These suits have, they look like a polyester

or a synthetic material to me,

which makes sense.

You want something lightweight,

but you also want something standardized,

something that you wouldn’t get with natural fiber,

or wool or cotton.

Stargate, Atlantis.

What are you waiting for?

I have to pull the right one or the antenna explodes.

Hurry up.

[dramatic music]

But get it right.

This is a very different approach to spacesuits

than other films that I’ve seen.

This goes back to that old armor-style conception

of a space suit.

And they seem to be wearing some sort of suit of armor

with a helmet that actually does fit their heads.

So you don’t have that excess volume of air floating around

that you don’t need and carrying around.

So it’s very different in that terms,

we can only guess on what sort of fantastic,

futuristic material this armor’s made from.

It’s obviously jointed.

It allows the person wearing it to bend down

and move around fairly freely.

We don’t know the environment that they’re in entirely.

So we don’t know whether it’s a vacuum or not.

The exterior of the space suit is very intriguing,

very different from what we’ve seen before.

What’s really interesting is this use

of the heads-up display, the projection inside the helmet.

That is something that helmet makers, be it for astronauts

or for pilots have been aspiring to

for decades in real life.

And there are problems with that.

This seems to overcome it by having a solid helmet

and the projection on the inside.

So the astronaut doesn’t have a very deep field division

exterior to his space suit,

but he has all the information he needs is coming up

on the inside of that helmet,

which is really neat.

Really, the problem with using heads up display

and helmets the way we use them today

is that if you’re out on another world,

if you’re on an orbiting space station,

you’re going to get solar glare.

And you’re not gonna be able to see that heads up display

when the sun passes in front of you,

or if you turn your head and facing the sun,

wherever you’re looking.

So it’s very awkward.

But this suit designer,

a costume designer

has come up with an ingenious way

to make heads up display work.

It’s like having a console on your face,

much like what we do now for virtual reality.

And that works.

So that’s very intriguing.

It’s a different approach,

And if astronauts are willing to give up

being able to see their feet as they walk,

that’ll work fine.

You just have to change the culture.

Armageddon.

[dramatic music]

Do me a favor, will you?

Just tell Grace that I’ll always be with her.

Okay?

Can you do that?

Yeah.

Okay, kid.

[air gushing]

[man grunting]

Give this to Truman.

Make sure Truman gets that.

Get in there.

It’s my turn now.

Armageddon is supposed to be set

in the not too distant future.

And the spacesuits used in it are pretty much

in the not too distant future.

They very closely resemble the basic principles

of what we build on for spacesuits today.

They seem to have some sort of physical, mechanical,

compression device in these tubings that run

along the lateral lines of the muscles of the body.

The helmets are appropriately sized,

I’m very glad to say.

The placement of the lights on the helmet are very good.

They’re on the exterior of the helmet

and they allow the astronaut to see in front of them

and examine things closely.

They don’t have a thermal micrometeorite garment

shrouding the helmet.

But under these circumstances,

it’s really not necessary.

And theatrically it’s not as necessary.

What catches me are the dramatic transitions in the movie

that really couldn’t be done with space suits

or you hope they wouldn’t be able to do them

with spacesuits.

First of all, is Bruce Willis pulling the oxygen supply

from Ben Affleck.

Yes, in principle you could do that,

but you aren’t going to design a space suit

that could be that easily disabled and destroyed.

Bruce Willis tearing his patch off of his space suit

with his gloved hand.

The first lesson that astronauts today learn

when they’re practicing for space walks,

they put on their space suits,

they go down into the neutral buoyancy tank in Houston,

and they’re confronted with coins, usually dimes,

on the bottom of this huge swimming pool

that they enact space walks in,

with the help of weights and scuba divers.

And their assignment is to figure out a way

to pick up those coins on the bottom of the pool.

It is really hard to exhibit any sort of manual dexterity

in a pressurized glove.

Picking up coins you can probably finesse

by grabbing and dragging them along

and getting that that flip,

but getting something as tactile as ripping a patch,

which is very well sown with very strong synthetic thread

onto a space suit is not going to happen.

But if you hadn’t done that,

you wouldn’t have had the dramatic conclusion of the movie,

and this return of the patch

back to the earthbound flight director

who had always wanted to go into space.

So that’s very important for the movie to flow,

but not very practical to do inside a space suit.

The one thing that they do get right

is that Affleck falls back into the chamber

and the door is closed and repressurized

within that 15 seconds.

So he doesn’t lose consciousness.

He is restored to a safe environment very quickly.

So that makes it easy.

2001, A Space Odyssey

[dramatic music]

Yet another classic in space movies.

The fact is that Kubrick was good.

He relied on the state of the art techniques

in special effects.

Well-informed by what was then the current state of the art

of space suit design.

In fact, this space suit is very similar to a prototype

that had been proposed to NASA during the early 1960s

for the Apollo program.

It has this helmet that has a sort of a conical-shaped

helmet, but it has a very wide range of vision.

So the astronaut can turn his head left or right,

and see everything around him

or pretty much everything around him.

The spacesuit itself is really interesting

because it employs that tomato worm design,

those are the sort of corrugated forms along the legs

and the arms.

And that is a method in which oxygen would be able

to be displaced locally.

So when the astronauts bent his or her arm,

compress the air on one side and the air would flow

to the outside of the compressed joint

instead of forcing the other arm to go out

or the leg to go out straight.

So it’s a localized displacement of oxygen.

There is a very small backpack or a front pack

for the astronauts who control their oxygen supply.

The hands are in what looks to be sort of a rubber dip

glove, not a great deal of tactile sensation,

but at least enough for him to work in.

He decided to use something

that didn’t look like a NASA suit at the time,

but he also stayed very close to what was reality

or what was practical or what spacesuit engineers

were thinking about at the time.

He was aware that they were worried about field of vision.

He knew that mobility in a pressurized suit,

in a vacuum was very difficult and very awkward.

He was very concerned with getting it right

and getting it accurate.

Obviously, he’s working with Arthur C. Clarke

who understood the very importance that,

we couldn’t make this as wild and fantastic as possible.

We had to draw back to our real expectations

of what the future, that the near future would look like.

This is my all time favorite scene

in a space science fiction movie.

He’s used the explosive propulsion

of depressurizing his shuttle vehicle

to get him into the airlock.

Now, yes, it’s not very probable

that he would go straight in

and explosive compression would drive him

just to the precise point in the airlock,

so he could tap on that door and have the door close

and the lock repressurized

within that very special 15 seconds.

But it’s a wonderful scene,

and it teaches you a lot about physics

and it reminds you that we’re dealing

with a real world out there.

Outland.

[dramatic music]

The flashlights, the light bulbs,

they’re inside the helmets.

You don’t want to do that.

I don’t know if any of you remember the first time

you had a fish tank or a fish pole

and you shined a light on the outside

and you couldn’t see to the other side.

That’s the same thing that happens

if you have the lights inside a space suit,

inside a space helmet.

You’re not gonna be able to see,

it’s blinding, you have that reflection.

In order to design these suits,

they would have to know what the environment is.

So they have to be pretty confident that the pressure

is going to be constant,

but that the gravity is going to be constant.

Jupiter’s moons are irregular.

That means that the gravity may be irregular.

You may have different levels of gravity

depending on where it is in orbit

or what other moons it’s coming

and encountering at the time,

because moons have their own gravitational attraction.

So this is a pretty complicated calculus to work on

when you’re talking about anticipating

what a space suit’s going to do

and anticipating what it’s going to need to do,

how it’s going to function in an alien environment

and how it is going to compensate

for the variations of gravity,

atmosphere and structure,

and also construction.

Building spacesuits for construction

is probably the hardest thing to do

because you’re putting people in suits to protect them

that probably the most perilous state

and orchestrating large movements of objects and materials.

Moon.

[slow music]

I’m a really great fan of dark dystopian movies.

And this movie hits it for me.

This has spacesuits that closely resemble Apollo spacesuits,

with the expectation that this too

is not the too distant future.

There are obviously modifications, updates on the suit,

but it still has the same basic bubble helmet,

the shroud on top that projects

that also mounts lights, potentially cameras.

Obviously the actors not wearing a full space suit.

It’s a little bit too loose.

It’s not pressing out against the vacuum of space,

but it’s pretty on target from what a moon walker clone

would probably be issued to wear.

Sunshine.

[dramatic music]

Come on.

Come on.

[dramatic music]

These helmets look like something

that were proposed back in the 1950s,

these giant, almost dragon looked-like helmets

that were really overbearing,

and you wonder what their function is for.

The suit itself, it looks a little large, very bulky,

and it has its sort of incorporated

both its protection and its mobility on the outside.

You see the rings around the elbows and the knees

and the hips, but you also see that sort of heavy material

that is protecting the wearer inside the suit.

So you wonder if it’s all in one or if this is closer

to a space craft itself.

Well, one interesting thing about being in close proximity

of the sun is that it isn’t the same

as being in close proximity to a stove.

With a stove you have, heat can radiate through the air.

With the sun, because there is a vacuum,

you can get very close to the sun without getting very hot.

And we learn recently with solar probes and exploration

that you can get very close in,

and if you pull back quickly enough, the satellite,

the probe can survive.

So you can go back and forth just taking advantage

of that vacuum between you and the sun.

So you don’t need that heavy protection,

but you need to make your calculations very quickly

and make sure you avoid solar flares.

This may be so bulky just to compensate,

not only for the sun, but for then nuclear radiation

of reigniting the sun.

So this may have a dual purpose of protection,

and that might explain why it is so bulky.

Gold is sort of the universal, or not universal,

but global reflective material.

And if you go to the Air and Space museum today,

you will see the Skylab has a gold finish on it.

And that too is a layer of monomolecular gold,

which reflects back the sun very uniformly,

so it dissipates heat radiation coming from the sun.

So we know that gold works that,

it’s not only just pretty and glittery,

but it has a very, very sound function

for dissipating radiation and light.

Thank you for watching these clips with me.

I hope you learned something.

I hope you enjoyed it.

And until next time.

[upbeat music]



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