NASA's first new spacesuit in 20 years is its own airlock


July 25, 2012

The Z-1 space suit has a rear entry hatch that can latch to a spaceship or rover, eliminating the need for an airlock

The Z-1 space suit has a rear entry hatch that can latch to a spaceship or rover, eliminating the need for an airlock

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The current U.S. space suit used by NASA is a dinosaur. Designed in 1992, it was only ever intended to be used by crews aboard the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS). That may have been good enough in the days of 14 kps modems, but with eyes turning increasingly toward missions to the Moon, Mars and the asteroids, space explorers need something better. That’s why NASA is designing its first new suit in twenty years. Developed by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), the Z-1 prototype space suit currently undergoing vacuum testing at the Johnson Space Center is a wearable laboratory of new technology. And it’s a hatchback.

Space suits in popular culture are very simple things. If film and television are anything to go by, then space suits are as easy to use as coveralls and can be donned in a matter of seconds. Zip it up, put the helmet on and off you go. Nothing could be further from the truth. True, we’ve all seen astronauts walking out to the launch pad wearing what look like space suits, but those are actually emergency pressure suits used to protect the crew inside the craft for a short time in the event of the ship leaking air.

Real space suits of the sort used to work outside the ISS or for walking on the Moon are a very different affair. They’re more like miniature spaceships with arms and legs. These are highly complex systems that require extensive training to use and, far from getting one on in seconds, it takes more like an hour. If you regard emergency pressure suits as being the equivalent of a scuba outfit, then a space suit is a mixed-gas deep diving rig.

The suit needs to do everything that a spaceship does. It needs to protect the wearer from heat, cold and micrometeorites. It needs to supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide and contaminants from the air. It also needs to be lightweight, compact and reasonably flexible - which isn’t easy when you recall that a spacesuit is essentially a balloon.

The Z-1 space suit has new joint bearing for greater mobility

The “Z-1 Prototype Spacesuit and Portable Life Support System (PLSS) 2.0,” to give it its proper name, is what is called a “rear-entry space suit” made up of a combination of several hard elements mounted on a suit of fabric that’s flexible when uninflated. To get in, the astronaut uses a “suitport.” This is a combined hatch and life support pack on the back of the suit’s torso. The neat thing about the Z-1 is that the hatch allows it to latch onto a spaceship, rover or habitat.

Once docked, the suit’s hatch can open inside the craft and the astronaut can get in and out of the suit without using an airlock. This means that the wearer can get in and out much faster, less air is wasted than with an airlock and the astronaut doesn’t have to do so much “Prebreathing.” That is, inhaling pure oxygen to avoid getting the bends in the lower pressure of the suit. The Z-1 makes this less necessary because it operates at the same pressure as a spaceship. It has to or the hatch wouldn’t open because of the pressure difference.

In addition to the hatch, the Z-1 also boasts improved bearings in the waist, hips, upper legs and ankles for greater freedom of movement, and new urethane-coated nylon and polyester layers to maintain pressure and control the suit from billowing.

The Z-1 space suit includes an improved life support backpack

The backpack also shows what two decades of new technology can bring. It’s more robust and less vulnerable to contamination than the current model and has more capabilities. For example, the current backpack uses a sublimator to cool the suit, but that only works in a hard vacuum. NASA wanted one that would work on Mars, so the Z-1 uses a water membrane evaporation cooler that cools using the same principle as sweating and it’s tough enough to survive freezing.

Another improvement are the scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide. The current ones use lithium hydroxide/metal oxide carbon dioxide scrubbers, which need to be baked between missions to drive off the carbon dioxide. The new ones regenerate automatically by dumping the carbon dioxide every few minutes.

Lessons learned from Z-1 will be used to develop Z-2, the next-generation prototype. NASA hopes to have a new vacuum-compatible suit by 2015.

Sources: Popular Mechanics and NASA (PDF file)

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Pixar got it right? Sure looks a lot like the Russian EVA suits. I'm sure there are some nice upgrades from that design, though.

John Hagen-Brenner

To infintiy and beyond!


Why does it look so similar to Buzz Lightyear's suit?


When designing stuff there are really only just so many cool looks possible and PIXAR animation got there first with Buzz.


looking at the color scheme, I'm thining Buzz lightyear.


The suitport access in the back reminds me of the isolation suits in the Wildfire ward in the original "The Andromeda Strain" movie. Those were accessed by climbing through a tunnel in the back.


Hopefully for freefall work you will be able to replace the legs with a joint free canister with a few foot controls.


Nice. But I feel like I have seen the design before, if only in movies. Not that those suits were any more than costumes, but the concept is sound.

It's strange that the most innovative part of the suit is the docking mechanism on the back, but the photographs don't show the back.

I do see once very good part of the design, dust. The moon dust is horribly abrasive and any way to keep it out of the spacecraft makes life far more pleasant for the astronauts. Having the suit outside of the module, they have next to no chance of any debris entering the spacecraft.

Richard Morgan

It looks like a new Russian Space suit... Does this mean NASA has figured out that they should use pencils as well?

Jay Penney

Amazingly, the photos of the suit also look 20 years old.

Montana Harkin

The reason NASA doesn't use pencils is that particles of graphite floating around in freefall can cause problems with electronics and other systems.

Gary Bivin

One would think that NASA would be looking more towards something like the BioSuit rather than fiddling with their old design especially for exploration on the moon and Mars.


"Space suits in popular culture are very simple things"

Just because these spacesuits are so complex doesn't mean that spacesuits have to be so complex. Space is not really that cold because no air to carry heat away, so human body can to degree take care of own climate control by generating extra heat or sweat. If people had lots more experience and experimentation, they may come up with much simpler designs.

For example from wikipedia on spacesuits: Skintight suits Skintight suits, also known as mechanical counterpressure suits or space activity suits, are a proposed design which would use a heavy elastic body stocking to compress the body. The head is in a pressurized helmet, but the rest of the body is pressurized only by the elastic effect of the suit. This eliminates the constant volume problem, reduces the possibility of a space suit depressurization and gives a very lightweight suit. However, these suits are very difficult to put on and face problems with providing a constant pressure everywhere. Most proposals use the body's natural sweat to keep cool.

David Kay

i suspect as commercial space flight becomes more developed the demand for some of these newer technology suits like the Biosuit will really take off. Why we wouldn't be focusing on them now instead of this? I almost got the feeling from the beginning of the article that the Z-1 type suit would be for "escape" situation where cabin decompression was occurring, and astronauts needed them. Then the article started talking about Mars, the Moon and other deep space it seems like NASA is planning to use it probably for another 30 years. Then again im not a NASA scientist so Im sure there are reasons.

Jeremy Cooke

Too bad they haven't developed anything more advanced than a flip-phone camera to photograph it with.

Bob Humbly
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