Chris Hadfield on building a better spacesuit

NASA has asked the public to weigh in on what the outer layer of a new and better spacesuit suit should look like. As it happens, retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has some ideas of his own.

NASA asks public to help with suggestions for the outer layer

Chris Hadfield does a fit check on an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston on July 31, 2012. (NASA)

When Chris Hadfield was five years old, his mother made him a space robot costume for Halloween.

"I still remember how proud and excited I was," the retired Canadian astronaut says, recalling the cardboard boxes painted silver that he wore almost five decades ago.

But as clumsy as those cardboard costume may have been, they were probably easier to get around in than the real but very uncomfortable spacesuit Hadfield donned in 2001 when he became the first Canadian to walk in space.

Throughout his career, Hadfield has been very involved in spacesuit development, and he watches with interest now as NASA works on a new, what's called Z-2 suit, and gives the public a chance to vote on how its outer layer will look.

Listen to Chris Hadfield's interview on the Early Edition on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, at 7:20 a.m. PT. Or tune in at 4:20 p.m. ET to hear Chris Hadfield on Ottawa's drive-home show All In A Day.

Spacesuits are like a "one-person spaceship," says Hadfield, who served as commander of the International Space Station last year, and is now a regular contributor with CBC News.

"It has to keep you alive so therefore the design of it really is driven to a large degree by the fact it is has to keep you healthy and safe in your environment."

There is also a lot going on with a spacesuit. It's a complex, 100-kilogram collection of fibre glass and cloth components joined to suit the size of the astronaut wearing it. It also has to look after water purification, air circulation, power, communications and propulsion, among other things.

'A really harsh place'

Ultimately, a spacesuit has to act as a shield against the unforgiving nature of space itself, whether the suit is designed for the surface of the moon or another planet, or for an astronaut working in weightlessness outside the ISS.

One of the three designs NASA is asking the public to vote on includes electroluminescent wire and patches across the upper and lower torso, exposed rotating bearings, collapsing pleats for mobility and highlighted movement and abrasion resistant panels on the lower torso (NASA)

"When you're outside in space, it's a really harsh place," says Hadfield.

Temperatures can climb to 150 C in the sunshine, or plunge to -140 C in the shade. There is no atmosphere to shield the astronaut from radiation and no other protection against the micrometeorites, tiny bits of space dust, swirling around like something cast off by a sandblaster.

While existing suits have been able to offer protection against those elements, they have come at a physical cost to astronauts who have worn them.

"The spacesuits are extremely uncomfortable and very restrictive of motion," says Hadfield, likening the experience to the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character straps on a huge robot machine and moves her arm to get the robot to move its arm.

"If you want to move your arm in the space suit, it's not your natural arm motion," says Hadfield. "If you want to squeeze your hand in a spacesuit, you're fighting the pressure of the suit itself. You can't turn your head because it's inside a helmet."

Normally, after a six- or eight-hour spacewalk, you'll be bleeding somewhere because of friction inside the suit.

"One of the things they're trying to do with the Z-2 suit is to make the suit better mimic the motions of the body so that it's not a constant battle between you and the suit, and more it's like an extension of what you would do normally, so it's not nearly as tiring or as abrasive on the body," says Hadfield.

Not so simple

But finding a better suit isn't a simple task.

"There's been a lot of discussion over the years of whether we make the suits hard or soft," says Hadfield, who has lived in an undersea habitat at the bottom of the ocean for two weeks testing spacesuit simulators.

Chris Hadfield participates in a spacewalk training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Centre on July 25, 2012, in a session helping him prepare for possible work on the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

"Is it like a balloon made of cloth or is it like a suit of armour that is clamped around your body?"

And with each consideration comes a trade-off.

"Often a better suit would be more like Iron Man where it’s a hard suit. But the trouble is those are really hard to re-size from one person to another," says Hadfield.

"Also, if you're launching a spaceship, which is really small, you don't want to have a spacesuit that is so huge that it takes up all the room in your spaceship."

At this point, compromise enters into the design equation.

"The new suits is trying to solve that compromise as best as possible: a suit that packs up nice and small but at the same time can give the wearer as much flexibility and protection and lack of bulk as you can manage," says Hadfield.

No more moon dust inside

Then there's the question of how to make sure a suit doesn't bring something like moon dust back into a spaceship.

"Moon dust is not like Earth dust. It's like broken glass," says Hadfield.

To counter that, the Z-2 has a port at the back that allows it to attach to the outside of a spaceship. An astronaut could slip into it without the suit ever coming inside the vehicle.

One critical element of any spacesuit is the glove, something Hadfield says has been the focus of design improvements "since the beginning."

He's also given the designers a hand — literally — crafting gloves that have been used by several astronauts. About 15 years ago, plaster casts were made of both his hands. A computer with a laser then made a full digital model of his hands, along with those of astronauts with larger and smaller hands.

"My gloves are one of the industry standard glove sizes," he says. "I was lucky enough when I did my spacewalks to be able to have Hadfield gloves on that fit me perfectly."

On one spacewalk, however, he wasn't so lucky, when leftover bits of an anti-fogging agent inside his helmet temporarily blinded him.

'A bit like Tron'

Now, when he recalls all the experiences he has had wearing a spacesuit, he considers "simplicity and reliability" the most important features for a new suit.

Chris Hadfield stands on one Canadian-built robot arm to work with another one during a spacewalk at the International Space Station on April 22, 2001. (NASA)

"We need suits that are easy to don/doff and that are tough and long-lasting, like in the movies."

Of the three Z-2 cover-layer designs that NASA has up for public review, Hadfield likes the one that looks "a bit like Tron," complete with some glow-in-the-dark features.

But as much as his preferred outer-layer option has Tron-like qualities, Hadfield ultimately sees little true representation in how the movies have portrayed spacewalking over the years.

"I don't know of any movie that has portrayed spacewalking correctly. It's technical, uncomfortable, physically tiring and alone. Maybe 2001 A Space Odyssey was best. Or From the Earth to Moon."

But maybe with a new suit, it can at least be a bit more comfortable.

Listen to Chris Hadfield's interview on the Early Edition on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, at 7:20 a.m. PT. Or tune in at 4:20 p.m. ET to hear Chris Hadfield on Ottawa's drive-home show All In A Day.


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