Outer space looks so peaceful and tranquil from the images we have received over the years from NASA astronauts. Yet the reality of space is that it is an unforgiving place, and impossible to survive in without adequate protective gear. Without a space suit you would lose consciousness within seconds because there is no oxygen. Blood boils and then freezes because of the lack of air pressure. Extreme changes in temperature would kill you one way or the other: In sunlight temperatures reach 248 degrees Fahrenheit and in shade temperatures drop to -148 Fahrenheit. And you’d be exposed to radiation. Basically, no spacesuit… and you’re done for.
Above is an image of the actual space suits used by American astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up with stories from my dad about being on one of the recovery ships for John Glenn’s (first!) historic space flight. I was fortunate to have worked with a NASA spacesuit on display at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution on the Moon Landing’s 20th anniversary, and witnessed the three Apollo 11 astronauts speaking of their journey. Since then I have met two other men who went to the moon. On the one hand they are just people like everyone else. On the other, they all realize they have done something incredible.
I’ve also been lucky enough to see in person not only the several space capsules in Washington, DC, but something I never thought I’d see when I was a kid–Gus Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 capsule, cleaned up after being found at the bottom of the Atlantic resulting from his controversial flight. Real life space travel carries a special kind of magic, and to try to match it, Hollywood has its work cut out for it.
More than a century of science fiction has recognized the need for some travel suit or the other for space travelers of the future. As reflected in science fiction films, costumers in Hollywood have adapted to the cutting edge science of the day to perfect the look and feel of the future for their science fiction fan audience. But it wasn’t until the space race that the modern real space suit look was established as the standard, when costumers realized that realistic travel in space required pressurized suits, including what is obvious today, components like gloves and airtight helmets.
Whether film producers are making TV series or movies, space suits end up as a large chunk of the production budget. Looking right costs money. Leading the way in the future of dress in outer space was the original Star Trek series and subsequent Star Trek series. But because of budget constraints there was a surprising lack of actual space suits on each of these series. Even though the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation referred to their shipwear as “space suits” on a daily basis on set, that’s not the type of gear we’re discussing here. A chronicle of those types of suits would fill a book, from Star Trek to Babylon 5 to all the other science fiction TV series made by the Syfy Network alone. Those typically form-fitting and more military styled suits were a much cheaper way to make a TV series that could survive financially. Likewise, we’ll save for another day space pilot suits, like Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter flight suit from Star Wars and Apollo’s Viper flight suit from Battlestar Galactica. But even Star Trek was able to spend budget dollars on space “outer wear” over the years from time to time.
The following is a look at the change of the design of the space suit in film over the years. Literally thousands of artists’ renderings of space suits can be found in countless covers to pulp novels, comic books, and other works, too. Many of them influenced or mirrored the designs below, and ultimately the costume designers rarely stray from reflecting the forward looking vision of their time. Note: Please send us your updates, new images and old, suits we missed and those published since this article was written, care of firstname.lastname@example.org.
Come back tomorrow and we will continue with part 2–42 more uses of space suits in TV and movies, from 1979 to today.