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Spacesuits in fiction

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

Edison's Conquest of Mars

From Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898):

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.

Early twentieth century

Early fictional spacesuits were heavily influenced by the "hard hat" diving suits which were in use from the 19th century on (see Timeline of underwater technology#19th century), including features such as the corselet and side windows on the helmet. Others were inspired by the hard shell "armored" type atmospheric diving suits of the period.

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 into 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.

After World War II

Following World War II, fictional spacesuits were influenced both by the real life pressure suits and gee 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

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

The First Men in the Moon

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.

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 run-of-the-mill film prop spacesuits with a 1960s-type aqualung cylinder each instead of a NASA-type life support backpack.

Dan Dare

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. 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.

Heinlein

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.

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 disphragm. 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 flashlight on top; the other has two flashlights, one on each side, and on top what may be a radio or an instrument (radar?) pack.
  • 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.

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

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 on to the Lunar 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.

Armored space suits

  • 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.
  • 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 & blood plasma if enough damage is inflicted and a risk of decompression is apparent.

After first real space flights

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

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".

Gerry Anderson UFO series

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

  • Alien spacesuits, filled with a breathable liquid to resist acceleration stresses on the occupant.
  • SHADO issue spacesuits.

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.

Gundam

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).

Skintight spacesuits

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 Jerry Pournelle's story Exiles To Glory in 1977
  • A. Bertram Chandler.
  • Stephen Baxter in his Manifold series, notably 'Time'. Baxter's work covers the technical aspects of using the 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 Robinson's novel Stardance (1979) they played a significant role.
  • Skinsuits feature rather prominently in the Honorverse books by David Weber.

Symbiotes

Spider Robinson's novel Starseed (the 2nd volume of his Stardance trilogy) and John Varley's short story Equinoctial (from his collection Picnic on Nearside) both feature alien symbiotes which act as living space suits, supplying their wearer with oxygen and recycling waste gases and deriving their energy from solar power.

Space fiction without prominent use of spacesuits

In some space fiction, space suits are largely absent. Spacesuits are rarely seen in the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969), 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

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

  • The Flickinger field in Jack McDevitt's fiction: A Flickinger field projects just above the user's clothing except for an extended bubble in front of the face for breathability. They are primarily invisible but can be seen as a faint aura in the right light. It occurs in the novels The Engines of God, Deepsix, Chindi, Omega, and Odyssey, and the short story "Oculus" (2002).
  • John Varley's novels Steel Beach and The Golden Globe feature force-field spacesuits whose mechanism replaces one of the user's lungs and in use generates a reflective force-field around the wearer.
  • There is an example in the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode "The Slaver Weapon".
  • The bubble around the boys' spacecraft in Explorers.

References

External links to other fictional spacesuits

See also

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