Sciency Words: Z-Series Spacesuits

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


What is a spacesuit? Is it a garment? Is it a type of apparel that you wear in space? Or is a spacesuit actually a kind of minimalistic, human-shaped spacecraft?

Last week, we took a look at a new spacesuit concept that’s definitely more of a garment. A tight-fitting, super sexy kind of garment. Today, we’re turning our attention to something that follows the human-shaped spacecraft philosophy of spacesuit design.

This is NASA’s experimental Z-1 spacesuit: a big, bulky spacesuit that’s sort of reminiscent of Buzz Lightyear.

Ap10 Z-1 Spacesuit

The Z-1 is made from “soft” materials, which weigh less than the “hard” materials of current spacesuits and allow astronauts a greater range of motion. On the downside, soft suits are less durable and provide less protection.

After the Z-1, NASA’s next experimental suit was named the Z-2. This time, rather than borrowing color schemes from Toy Story, NASA went with something from Tron.

Ap10 Z-2 Spacesuit

For the Z-2, NASA went back to hard materials, at least for the torso. They also added electro-luminescent panels, because they look cool. I mean, because they improve visibility in dark environments. It’s dark in space, you know. Looking cool is just a bonus.

While the Z-1 and Z-2 have many differences, there is one design feature they have in common. Notice the body shapes of these suits. Notice that they both look sort of top-heavy. There’s a reason for that.

The Z-series spacesuits aren’t clothes. You don’t put them on like clothes. Instead, you climb in through an entry hatch in the back, which extends up over the shoulders to make room for your head. I have to admit, this does sound a whole lot more convenient than all that mechanical counter pressure stuff from last week. Just climb in, close the hatch behind you, and you’re good to go (well, I’m sure there’s still life support and pressurization stuff to do, but you’re basically good to go).

Both the Z-1 and Z-2 are prototypes. Neither has been sent to space, and I’m under the impression they never will be. Instead, they’re being tested here on Earth using vacuum chambers and such. But maybe someday, thanks to the Z-series suits, astronauts on the Moon or Mars will have the convenience of hatch-back spacesuit entry.

And by the way, if anyone at NASA is reading this, here’s my proposal for the Z-3. It’s inspired by The Fifth Element.

Ap10 Z-3 Spacesuit

So the next time you’re heading to space, what kind of spacesuit do you want? Do you want to wear a garment-like mechanical counter pressure suit, or would you prefer the convenience of something like the Z-series?


Z-1 Next Generation Spacesuit (Infographic) from

NASA’s Futuristic Z-2 Spacesuit: How It Works (Infographic) from

The Z-1 from

NASA’s Next Prototype Spacesuit Has a Brand New Look, and It’s All Thanks to You from

6 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Z-Series Spacesuits

  1. The mechanical counter-pressure suits seem more convenient to me. These might be easier to get into, but with a tight fitting garment, why would you ever need to get out? When inside, you can just keep the suit on without the coils activated so that you have a safety net in case the ship is unexpectedly depressurized. You would probably have to still put on a helmet, but that seems slightly faster than climbing through a hatch to put on a traditional suit.

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  2. Not sure which I’d prefer, although the Z-series seems safer. Not sure I’d want to have to stay in a counter-pressure suit as Kirov suggests. The crew on the ISS appear to spend most of their time wearing comfortable clothes. Psychological comfort seems like an important factor here.

    James, after our previous suit discussion, I fished out my Apollo book: ‘How Apollo Flew to the Moon’ by W. David Woods (highly recommended for anyone interested in the technical details of Apollo). From what I gathered, the Apollo command module and lunar lander interior were only pressurized to about 350 millibars of pure oxygen. (Earth atmosphere at sea level is 1000 millibars of oxygen, nitrogen, and other gases.)

    The book, somewhat frustratingly, didn’t say much about the spacesuits, although it implies they were pressurized to 250 millibars, making pressure changes between the cabin and suit modest. The suits did have special joints to increase mobility since without them, apparently even at 250 millibars, bending the arms or legs could be problematic.

    According to Wikipedia, the ISS interior is kept at 1 atmosphere (1000 millibars), probably to preserve long term comfort and health, but with the drawback of astronauts having to go through decompression procedures prior to EVA and recompression procedures afterward.

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    1. I’ll be sure to check that book out. A fellow Sci-Fi writer told me once, I think at a conference, that pure oxygen at low pressure is just as good for humans as a nitrogen/oxygen mix at normal pressure. I’ve been keeping that little tidbit in the back of my head for a while now, but I have had a really hard time finding a reliable source to verify it.

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      1. It’s true. Apollo made use of that fact. Air has weight, and it takes a stronger spacecraft structure to contain a higher pressure environment. A low pressure reduced the weight of the command, service, and lunar modules, which in turn reduced the necessary rocket stage sizes all down the line. And of course helped with the EVA transitions.

        But the atmosphere mixture was a complicated thing, and it changed after the Apollo 1 disaster, which was exacerbated by pure high pressure oxygen in the cabin and lots of flammable material. After Apollo 1, they mixed nitrogen into the cabin, but only until launch, when it was removed and the overall cabin pressure dropped to 350 millibars. The reason astronauts always wore their suits during launch was because they went through conditioning over several hours in the suit to avoid decompression sickness when all the nitrogen was quickly drained out of the cabin during ascent. By the time they opened their helmets, the cabin environment was close to their suit’s, 100% oxygen at low pressure.

        Interestingly, air pressure in the command module was restored to Earth normal during the final stages of descent via an air pressure valve. On the final Apollo flight, something went wrong and the maneuvering thrusters accidentally fired late, resulting in unburnt propellant coming in through the valve and irritating the eyes and skin of the crew, causing them to cough. It culminated in a rough splashdown.

        Reading the book gave me an appreciation of the fact that space travel is really complicated, and dangerous.

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