“Buzz Lightyear to Star Command, Buzz Lightyear to Star Command”
Named after Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men on the moon, Buzz Lightyear had a pretty spiffy spacesuit complete with a wings, a laser shooter, and a simple voice-recorder that could transmit his adventures to the intergalactic headquarters. According to John Lasseter (former chief creative officer at Pixar), the design of Buzz’s suit was inspired by the suits worn on the Apollo missions. How does Buzz Lightyear’s spacesuit compare to what astronauts really wear? Let’s find out.
Outside the spaceship
Most importantly, space suits – called EMUs for extravehicular mobility units – need to provide the proper air pressure, oxygen and temperature for astronauts to breathe and otherwise function in space. Without proper air pressure, the water in the astronaut’s body could boil at body temperature (37˚ celsius) instead of the much higher temperatures (100˚C) at sea level. To provide livable conditions, many EMUs fill with air (primarily oxygen), causing astronauts to function kind of like they are inside a human-shaped balloon animal.
Secondly, these suits also need to facilitate movement to move about and fix equipment, whether on the moon, the International Space Station, or near and distant planets. Increasing the ease of moving with minimal effort requires trade-offs with air pressure regulation and thus increases and the risk of sickness for the astronauts due to imbalances between oxygen and nitrogen. Other concerns are protecting against the elements in space – including radiation and micrometeorites traveling at very high speeds that can potentially abrade or otherwise damage the layers that compose EMUs.
Suits that are intended for use in 2018 and beyond have received a few design upgrades over early spacesuits. They have been designed with more flexible joint areas and zippers for greater mobility and comfort, vents to allow the release of moisture so that astronauts can keep cool, and gloves capable of operating touch-screens with finer dexterity.
Inside the spaceship
Inside the ship, astronauts need to be able to move about, eat, sleep and go to the bathroom. They usually are not as concerned about facilitating breathing because the inside of the space ship is carefully controlled to allow life-preserving conditions, but modern suits still are capable of serving these functions in case of emergency. As a result, spacesuits for intravehicular activity (IVA) have fewer layers, and are thus lighter-weight, more flexible, and easier to don and doff (contraction of do off).
Compared to Buzz
The suit that we always see Buzz wearing is most similar to an EMU, and is designed to be similar to the Apollo spacesuit. Keeping the consistency of the white color of the suit helps to deflect solar radiation and stand out against the black of space; whereas Buzz has purple and green accents as symbols of Star Command, the red stripe accents on Apollo suits helped to differentiate among astronauts.
His suit is a combination of hard upper pieces and soft lower pieces, much like Apollo suits. Also like the Apollo suits, Buzz’s suit appears to have a backpack but whether it houses the life support system (including oxygen tanks and carbon dioxide removal system, water cooling system, two-way radio and batteries for electricity) is not apparent. Buzz’s helmet is globular like the Apollo suits but more closely resembles more modern IVA suits because it is clear rather than reflective. Because it is clear, Buzz’s helmet is likely incapable of deflecting the harmful rays of sunlight that are more intense in space than when filtered through Earth’s atmosphere and thus suited only to intravehicular activity.
Astronauts don’t have wings because they don’t have to fly without a spacecraft. Plus, the minimal gravity on the moon and lack of gravity away from the surface of planets makes wings a bit useless. Wings that flap like a bird’s would still be useful in controlling movement inside a space station but wings that serve just to allow lift and gliding (like those on Buzz’s suit) wouldn’t be very helpful.
Outside the spaceship where there are essentially no air molecules like in Earth’s atmosphere, wings would be even more useless. Modern astronauts use a separate unit that attaches to their spacesuit and is equipped with multiple thrusters to control their movement when outside the spacecraft.
The lack of air molecules in space is why planes can’t go to space and why we need spaceships with powerful thrusters and with parts capable of being detached to create momentum to move the ship instead of relying on lift and drag. The wings on a space shuttle are only for guiding upon exit and re-entry back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Although Buzz’s retractable helmet is pretty cool, it likely isn’t feasible for real astronauts. The seal between the helmet and the suit is one of the most crucial aspects ensuring astronauts’ survival. The glass part of the helmet needs to be one piece of extremely strong material to prevent gaps that would throw off the air pressure and temperature regulation, rather than the typical layering of sections of material in many retractable items (like lightsabers or straws). If there is room in the astronaut’s helmet for the piece of coated Plexiglass to move back and forth, there would have to be a fail-proof mechanism for ensuring that the seal between the glass and the rest of the helmet is secure. This mechanism would have to operate without vacuum sealing because the air pressure in the head cavity needs to be similar to the air pressure surrounding the rest of the body inside the suit.
Cross-space communicator and log recorder
Most of the communication equipment is housed in an astronaut’s helmet when engaged in activity outside the spacecraft; when inside the spacecraft, astronauts more often wear headsets with earphones and microphones like we see in everyday purposes on Earth. Buzz is more often seen communicating via a wrist microphone which is inefficient because astronauts are often using their hands for other tasks, like holding onto handles inside and outside the spacecraft to control their movement. It is much more important for this visible real estate on astronauts’ wrists to have information about the internal pressure of their suit and their availability of oxygen than for communication (or a mirror to be able to read these stats located on the chest panel).
Again, wrist real estate is extremely valuable for astronauts. Having a laser located there might not be the best option and modern astronauts rarely have use for a laser in the ways that Buzz does (usually for threatening or attacking enemies). The closest thing that astronauts have to a laser weapon is probably welders for when they are fixing their space station or ships. However, lasers are being used in other ways in space such as measuring distance between objects in orbit, detecting substances, cleaning up space debris, and transmitting more information more rapidly. Even still, the entire beam of the laser from origin to destination point isn’t visible to the human eye because there aren’t sufficient particles in space to reflect and make visible the light of the laser beam.
Suits of the Future
Dava Newman and her colleagues at MIT and beyond (including a former astronaut!) are working to design a new spacesuit called the BioSuit that is skintight and will make it easier for astronauts to move while still providing the necessary air pressure, temperature and oxygen. New materials and a carefully calculated exoskeleton are supposed to exert enough pressure on the astronaut’s body for all of the body’s cells to maintain functionality. They are also working on a different type of junction between the helmet and suit so that astronauts can turn their necks and look over their shoulders. Although they are still a ways off from having a space-proof suit, the research also has many potential biomedical applications as well, such as helping monitor and correct abnormal motor movement in stroke and cerebral palsy patients.
As we learn more about the effects of wearing spacesuits and living in zero gravity, maybe we can eventually go beyond to the special features seen on Buzz’s suit, or even the grappling hooks and magnets that come with the new and improved utility belt in Toy Story 2. But first, infinitely more research needs to be done on safety and health of astronauts before we can envision this or the emergence of something like Star Command.