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Spacesuit Designer

How an engineer creates the special suits astronauts wear in space

Liu Jie/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

1. The helmet’s visor shields the astronaut’s eyes from the sun’s energy.

2. The Portable Life Support System powers the suit and provides oxygen.

3. The suit’s outer layer protects astronauts from accidental fires while traveling in space.

As you read, think about the skills Amy Ross needs to do her job.

Three, two, one . . . blastoff! Humans have been traveling into space for almost 60 years. The trips often lead to exciting discoveries. But working in space is dangerous. 

There’s no breathable air in space. And the temperatures can be extreme. The moon can be as hot as 123°C (253°F) and as cold as -233°C (-387°F). Astronauts are also exposed to high levels of radiation. This invisible energy from the sun and outer space can harm people’s health or even kill them. To stay safe in this harsh environment, astronauts have to wear spacesuits. 

Who creates these spacesuits? Engineers like Amy Ross do. She works at NASA, the U.S. space agency. Ross helped design two new suits for NASA’s future missions to the moon. One suit is made for the launch and the return trip to Earth. The other will be worn on the moon’s surface.

The new spacesuits have many improvements over the ones worn during NASA’s moon missions from 1969 to 1972. Ross recently spoke with SuperScience about her work.

Three, two, one . . . blastoff! People have been traveling into space for almost 60 years. The trips often lead to exciting discoveries. But working in space is dangerous. 

There’s no air to breathe in space. And the temperatures can be extreme. The moon can be as hot as 123°C (253°F). It can be as cold as -233°C (-387°F). Astronauts also face high levels of radiation. That is invisible energy from the sun and outer space. Radiation can harm people’s health or even kill them. That’s why astronauts have to wear spacesuits. The outfits keep them safe in the harsh environment of space.

Who creates these spacesuits? Engineers like Amy Ross do. She works at NASA. It’s the U.S. space agency. Ross helped design two new suits for NASA. They’ll be worn on future missions to the moon. One suit is made for the launch and return trip to Earth. The other will be worn on the moon’s surface.

NASA’s first spacesuits helped get astronauts to the moon. These missions took place from 1969 to 1972. But the new spacesuits are much more advanced. Ross recently spoke with SuperScience about her work.

What made you decide to become a spacesuit designer?

My dad was an astronaut, and my mom was a food scientist at NASA, so I knew what it took to become a NASA engineer. I wanted a job that was a challenge and that excited me. I thought developing spacesuits sounded like fun!

My dad was an astronaut. My mom was a food scientist at NASA. So I knew what it took to become a NASA engineer. I wanted a job that was a challenge and excited me. I thought creating spacesuits sounded like fun!

How do spacesuits protect astronauts?

You can think of a spacesuit as a human-shaped spaceship. It protects the astronauts the same way. The new suit that will be worn on the moon is made of 11 layers of material. These layers help seal the suit and keep it pressurized, or inflated like a balloon, so that astronauts can keep breathing. A loss of pressure will cause lungs to stop working.

The materials also protect astronauts from radiation, extreme cold, and small rocks flying through space. Chilled water runs through tubes in the suit’s innermost layer to cool the astronauts in the sun’s extreme heat. A backpack, called the Portable Life Support System, holds the oxygen that the astronauts need to breathe.

Think of a spacesuit as a human-shaped spaceship. It protects an astronaut the same way. The new suit that will be worn on the moon has 11 layers of material. These layers help seal the suit. That keeps it pressurized. That means it stays inflated like a balloon. Otherwise, astronauts wouldn’t be able to breathe. A loss of pressure will cause lungs to stop working.

The materials also protect astronauts from radiation. They block small rocks zipping through space. The rocks could create holes in the suit. Chilled water runs through tubes in the suit’s inner layer. The water cools the astronauts in the sun’s extreme heat. The suit also keeps them warm in extreme cold. A backpack holds the oxygen astronauts need to breathe. It’s called the Portable Life Support System.

Neil Armstrong/NASA

The spacesuit worn on the moon in 1969 was stiff and hard to move in.

How do you create new suit designs?

The process can take up to 10 years. We start by making a list of criteria, or requirements. We wanted the new moon suit to be more flexible than previous spacesuits. We redesigned every joint so that astronauts can bend and flex more easily. The new suits also have interchangeable parts so they can better fit astronauts of different sizes. 

Once we have a design, the pieces of the suit are built and then assembled at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The process can take up to 10 years. We start by making a list of criteria, or requirements. We wanted the new moon suit to be more flexible than older spacesuits. So we changed every joint. They allow astronauts to bend more easily. The new suit’s parts can also be swapped out. That way they can better fit astronauts of different sizes. 

The pieces of the suit are built once we have a design. This happens at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It’s in Houston, Texas. Then the pieces are put together.

How do you know if the spacesuits will work in space?

We test everything on Earth first. At NASA, we test the suits in special facilities that let us mimic the gravity, air pressure, and temperature of a harsh space environment. Testing the suits under these conditions helps astronauts know how they will perform in space. 

The process can take up to 10 years. We start by making a list of criteria, or requirements. We wanted the new moon suit to be more flexible than older spacesuits. So we changed every joint. They allow astronauts to bend more easily. The new suit’s parts can also be swapped out. That way they can better fit astronauts of different sizes. 

The pieces of the suit are built once we have a design. This happens at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It’s in Houston, Texas. Then the pieces are put together.

Trevor Mahlmann

Ross works on spacesuit gloves. They protect astronauts’ hands from the harsh conditions of space.

What do you love about your job?

I like solving problems. I also like trying out spacesuits so that I can think of new ways to improve them!

I like solving problems. I also like trying out spacesuits. Then I can think of new ways to improve them!

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