“Houston, We Have a Connection:” Spacesuits vs. Musher Gear

A cooling garment is the first layer of a spacesuit. Photo: K. Newmyer

What do Alaska winter gear and spacesuits have in common? A lot, as it turns out.  Both of these specialized sets of apparel have features designed to protect the wearer from environmental hazards such as extreme temperatures, debris impact, and radiation.  Gear must have many other functions such as pockets and clasps for tools and signature stripes or colors so that the wearer is easily recognized.  I think it’s really amazing how much musher gear and astronaut gear are alike! Let’s deconstruct it some more.

The first layer that astronauts wear next to their skin is a cooling garment. Astronauts work on spacewalks for up to eight hours outside the spacecraft. Their body heat doesn’t dissipate, so they wear a three-layer cooling garment next to the skin. I doubt any musher would want to wear a garment that is designed to cool them! Mushers wear fabrics next to their skin that are designed to wick moisture and retain body heat while on long, cold stretches of trail. Base layers go against the skin and must be comfortable and breathable.  Even though the base layers don’t cool down a musher, they still perform a temperature regulating function. 

On a spacesuit, a piece called the Hard Upper Torso (HUT) houses electronic components that control the life-support systems for the astronaut. Actually, all spacesuits are really human-shaped mini-spacecraft! Gear for extreme winter temperatures is very much a life-support system too! Parkas have many features on the upper torso that enable a musher or volunteer to have life-saving tools and equipment close at hand—even a snack or two.  Joe Redington, Sr.’s parka is famous because of extra pockets that he added. 

Astronaut Kathy Sullivan’s Shuttle era spacesuit. She was the first American woman to walk in space. Photo: K. Newmyer

Important extremities like hands and feet are a challenge to protect. Gloves for astronauts and mushers must do two things: provide warmth to the hands and allow for dexterity to complete tasks.  NASA has solved this problem by creating a three-layered glove with a hard rubber exterior.  The glove is equipped with individual warmers to keep each finger warm.  However, mushers wear mittens which are more efficient than gloves for keeping the hands warm, but can easily be taken off for short periods of time to do chores in liner gloves. Astronauts can’t take their gloves off, so their gloves have the dexterity they need while on spacewalks to complete delicate repairs or other tasks.  Many mushers wear traditional beaded moose-hide mittens that are durable and warm.

Let’s talk boots! While a spacesuit incorporates hiking-style boots right into the leg piece, a musher must choose the best boots for their needs. A pair of well-insulated boots with good socks and an overlayer provides ultimate foot protection while out on the trail. I love this lineup of Martin Buser’s boots that shows the variety of footwear needed for the trail. To me this signifies how important proper footwear is–no one likes cold, wet feet. The National Air & Space Museum displays an overshoe boot from the Apollo era belonging to Gene Cernan, who walked on the moon during Apollo 17 (the last mission to the moon). See if you can spot similarities!  

The lower torso of a spacesuit is comprised of pants and boots in one, and it also has the waist closure connecting it to the torso piece. NASA’s new moon suits have many more joint interfaces designed to optimize mobility—no more hopping around on the moon’s surface! Different mushers prefer a variety of snow pants or coveralls.  Coveralls provide a musher continuous insulated coverage from the top down.  Snow pants also have multiple layers designed to keep the body warm. They have tough outer fabric to withstand the impact of trail debris and to protect from falls. 

Speaking of layers, the most critical aspect of extreme winter gear and spacesuits is their many layers.  Each layer has a different purpose and provides a specific function. Space suits have sixteen or more individual layers—and I’ll wager a full mushing setup has close to that.  High-tech fabrics developed by NASA are used in outdoor gear: Gore-Tex, neoprene, spandex, and nylon ripstop, to name a few. One of the most recently touted fabrics is SolarCore, developed from NASA aerogel technology. This material is being used in Oros outerwear, Merrill hiking boots, and for developing improved Arctic shelters. Although space suits are incredible pieces of technology—the humble sheep provides a material that comes out on top (but worn on the bottom) for keeping warmth inside the body, and that’s wool. Wool’s insulating properties are better than synthetic materials, so don’t forget your wool base layers, socks, hats, and neck warmers.

Protecting the head is vital. Comms technology is built right inside a spacesuit’s helmet. The visor is designed for use in environments where there is no atmosphere to soften the sun’s impact on the eyes. The next generation spacesuit’s helmet allows for better mobility of the head inside it. Did you know that spacesuit helmets also have a little piece inside that allows the astronaut to scratch their nose?  Some mushers wear ski helmets or goggles with reflective lenses like spacesuit helmets.  In a winter environment where buildup of snow and ice is a constant threat, a fur ruff around the hood of the parka protects a wearer’s face from winter precipitation while allowing visibility. 

Aliy Zirkle wears traditional head protection including a fur hat and ruff. Photo: Iditarod Media

Now that you know more about how musher gear is similar to space suits—right down to some of the exact same fabrics—you might be wondering, how long does it take to put a spacesuit on?  It takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.  I wonder how long it takes for a musher to put on all their gear? Email me your thoughts at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.