Previously, my colleague Margaret Simpson wrote about clothing worn during Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 expedition in the extreme environment of Antarctica. Space is also an extreme environment that requires its explorers to wear a specialised garment for survival: the spacesuit. A spacesuit is like a miniature spacecraft in itself, designed to protect the wearer from the harsh vacuum environment of space while conducting an extravehicular activity (‘spacewalk’), or in the event that the life support system of their spacecraft fails.
The Powerhouse Museum’s space technology collection includes a Soviet Sokol (Falcon) KV-2 spacesuit that was worn by cosmonaut Gennadi Manakov on his first spaceflight in 1990. Introduced in 1980, the Sokol KV-2 is the type of spacesuit still worn today by astronauts, cosmonauts and space tourists travelling to the International Space Station on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The origins of the Sokol spacesuit unfortunately lie in one of the early tragedies of space exploration, the loss of the crew of Soyuz 11 in 1971. When the USSR introduced its three-person Soyuz spacecraft in 1967, the re-entry module (that section of the spacecraft in which the crew rode during launch and return from orbit), was so constricted that it could not carry three cosmonauts if they were wearing spacesuits: instead the crew wore two-piece flight suits, like regular clothes, for the duration of the mission.
However, when the Soyuz 11 cosmonauts were returning from their stay as the first long-duration crew on the Salyut 1 space station, a valve was jarred loose during re-entry, resulting in a loss of cabin pressurisation that caused the death of the crew. Following this mishap, the original Sokol K spacesuit was developed from the Sokol pressure suit used by pilots in the Soviet Air Force, for cosmonauts to wear during launch, docking operations and re-entry. With the introduction of the Sokol suit in 1973, only two cosmonauts could be accommodated in the Soyuz spacecraft until the introduction of the redesigned Soyuz-T vehicle in 1979.
The Sokol is referred to as a ‘rescue spacesuit’ because it is intended to preserve the lives of the crew in the event of a pressure loss incident like that of Soyuz 11. It was not designed to be used for spacewalking, which is undertaken wearing a different type of spacesuit, known as Orlan (Eagle). The original Sokol K suit was used from 1973 until 1980, when it was replaced by the more advanced Sokol KV-2 version.
The museum’s Sokol KV-2 spacesuit was worn by cosmonaut Lt. Col. Gennadi Mikhailovich Manakov, commander of the Soyuz TM-10/Mir 7 space mission. Launched 1 August 1990, Manakov and his flight engineer Gennadi Strekalov became the seventh ‘permanent resident’ crew on the Mir space station. They spent four months on orbit conducting scientific experiments, before being joined by a relief crew, including the first journalist in space, Japan’s Toyohiro Akiyama. Akiyama returned to Earth with the Soyuz TM-10 on 10 December 1990. Manakov would make a second spaceflight in 1993 as commander of the Soyuz TM-16/Mir13 mission, which would see him spend six months on the Mir space station.
The Sokol spacesuit has an inner pressure layer of rubberised polycaprilactam, a type of nylon, with an outer layer of white nylon canvas. The boots are integral with the suit and-instead of the separate helmet familiar from US spacesuits-the cosmonaut’s head is covered by a ‘soft helmet’ or hood, which has an opening polycarbonate visor that secures to an anodised aluminium neck ring. The spacesuit’s gloves are removable and attached at the wrist with aluminium couplings.
The suits weigh around 10 kg and can be worn for up to 30 hours in a pressurised environment or two hours in a vacuum. It uses an open-circuit life support system (somewhat like scuba equipment) and draws air (oxygen/nitrogen mix) from the cabin supply, or pure oxygen from a bottled supply in an emergency, through hoses attached to the left side of the suit. Electrical cables are attached to the right side of the suit.
The suit is put on in a rather unusual way. The two zips that make a ‘V’ on the chest are opened and behind the flap they make there is a large opening in the inner pressure layer, which is nicknamed ‘the appendix’. The wearer puts their legs into the suit first, then the arms go into the sleeves and the head into the helmet. The material forming the appendix is then rolled up, secured with elastic bands and bundled under the V shaped flap formed by the zippers.
The museum acquired Lt. Col Manakov’s spacesuit at the first Western auction of Soviet space hardware, held at Sotheby’s in New York in 1993. Included in the purchase were a pair of the grey canvas ‘booties’ worn over the feet of the spacesuit for protection prior to the cosmonaut being strapped into the Soyuz for launch and the radio communications headset that is worn under the soft helmet.