REPORT: THE TAILORS TO THE STARS

Thirty years after the first moon landing, Victoria Lane probes the mysteries of the space suit

THE MEN in these pictures are "space tailors", less concerned with whether sir would like his suit cut on the bias than whether he requires it with carbon dioxide absorption, a jet-pack and humidity control. The photographs were taken earlier this year by Remi Benali at the repair and maintenance offices of Hamilton Standard, the company that has made all of Nasa's spacesuits since the early Seventies. Benali spent several days at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, where the offices are based.

At any given time, Nasa will have 12 spacesuits in circulation. Often four will be in use on a mission; the rest are kept in the Hamilton offices to be checked, repaired and altered. "People make the mistake of thinking a spacesuit is just a spacesuit. It's much more than that. It's a one- man spacecraft, an entire life-support system for the astronaut," says Charlie Porter, head of Hamilton Standard in Houston. It must meet the astronaut's every need, providing warmth, a cooling system, air to breathe, water to drink, and at the same time removing carbon dioxide and water vapour. The temperature inside the suit can be adjusted between 10C and 45C to cope with the alternating bitter cold and searing heat of outer space. The jet-pack, worn on the back, is to prevent the astronaut from drifting away like Major Tom: should he become untethered from his Shuttle, he can simply use the jet to propel himself to safety.

As well as photographing the work on the modern suits, Benali was given access to the Nasa archives at the Space Centre. He selected pictures of the many confections which have been made since 1937, when Wiley Post (pictured overleaf with his prototype) designed the first pressurised spacesuit. The Wiley Post suit was made of rubber, fastened with laces; on the head was delicately balanced a huge, cumbersome, extremely heavy metal helmet incorporating only a tiny peep-hole for vision.

Ever since then, teams of engineers have laboured to make the suits lighter, tougher, more flexible, less bulky. The Russians had overtaken the Americans by 1965, when Alexei Leonov became the first man to walk in space, but his equipment was still extremely primitive by today's standards. When Leonov stepped out into space, his suit ballooned with oxygen so that until he lowered its pressure he was unable to fit back in the capsule.

For every advance that the Americans made, a new problem was discovered. The first US astronauts to go on an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity: in lay terms, a space walk) found that their suits lacked an adequate ventilation system, so that when it was warm a moist heat would rise, causing their visors to mist up. The heating system, too, was ineffectual (special heating tubes in which the astronauts could warm up after a chilly excursion were introduced) and the astronaut's gloves were clumsy and inflexible, and did little to keep out the cold.

These early suits and prototypes are spectacular: unwieldy, restrictive and completely unconvincing. Some appear to be straight from Seventies television sci-fi. The more sinister- looking versions, such as the 1965 prototype for the Apollo mission, were discarded in favour of the less threatening Michelin-man design, which is similar to the design of the modern suits. Sweet in their inelegance, the suits look as though they could have been designed to appeal to any aliens the spacemen should chance to encounter.

By the time Neil Armstrong made his lunar landing almost exactly 30 years ago, the engineers had greatly improved the suits' mobility and had equipped them with a liquid cooling device. Best of all, a small rubber protuberance had been attached to the inside of Armstrong's helmet, specifically to enable him to scratch his nose.

It is a strange fact that today's astronaut wears a nappy beneath his suit. Compared to the old system, consisting of various plastic tubes and vacuum bags, this is a lesser indignity: on a number of occasions in former years the receptacle would break, allowing urine to free-float unpleasantly within the suit, soaking its occupant. Legend has it that, in one giant leak for mankind, Buzz Aldrin once came to grief in just such a way.

Early functioning suits like those used in the early Seventies cost about $5,000 (pounds 3,100) to make. By contrast, today's fashionable astronaut will be wearing an outfit that comes in at $10.5m (pounds 6.5m), despite its being from the ready-to-wear range (the suits are altered to fit individual astronauts). Rather than replace the entire suit when it starts to show wear, gradual alterations are made between missions, and components such as gloves or boots can be substituted. Further innovations are always being made: most recently, to meet the challenge presented by the construction of the Alpha International Space Station. The astronauts who are building Alpha will be handling metal which, when the temperature drops suddenly to -87C, will become intensely cold. Many an astronaut has had to abandon an EVA because of freezing fingers. This is why new gloves (costing $100,000 (pounds 62,500), a pair) have been designed. They are more malleable (working on construction in space has been likened in the past to performing "surgery with boxing gloves") and have been installed with a separate battery-powered heating system. The gloves were put to the test this May, when the first stage of construction began.

The gigantic enterprise will require at least 1,700 hours of space work, more than the combined total of all time spent on EVAs to date. Until now, missions in space have lasted on average only a couple of hours. With the construction of Alpha now under way, astronauts will be required to spend eight-hour stretches on the outside, so the suit's drinking water capacity has had to be increased: 1.5 litres instead of the previous half- litre. The water supply is contained in bags which are strapped to the astronaut's thighs. A tube leads up to his helmet, and he can drink by turning his head and sucking from a nozzle. A tricky arrangement involving a high-energy food bar being attached to the inside of the helmet has been discarded, because it was found that the snack tended to miss the mouth and end up smeared all over the visor.

In the meantime, as the final touches are put to the Alpha suits, over at Hamilton Standard's design headquarters in Connecticut preparations are being made for the launch of a new collection in the year 2017. Destination: Mars.

Captions:

Main picture: a Hamilton Standard space tailor works on the plexiglass torso of a spacesuit.

Right from top: a pair of space gloves nearing completion; an additional potable water container is tested in preparation for a mission to the International Space Station; the first line of defence in the spacesuit, astronaut nappies; Hamilton Standard's spacesuit depot at Nasa in Houston, Texas

Top row from left: Wiley Post models his revolutionary pressure suit, 1937; pressure suit prototype, 1951; outfit developed for the Gemini programme, 1964; spacesuit test for Apollo programme, 1965; prototype suit, 1984; prototype for the Freedom space station, 1987.

Bottom row from left: human version of primate semi-pressure suit, 1968; 1950s prototype of a warming bag for astronauts; spacesuit prototypes for men and women, 1990; astronaut Joe Engle with his children, 1970

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam