Why NASA spacesuits are white

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: What do Neil Armstrong, Ed White, and today’s ISS astronauts have in common? They all wore a white spacesuit. And they’re not alone. Beyond NASA, space programs in countries like Russia and China also use white suits. Not the colours of the Russian flag or China’s iconic yellow and red, just white. Plain old white. That basic colour has saved countless astronaut lives. NASA didn’t always have white spacesuits. Their very first manned spaceflight, Project Mercury, featured silver suits, but none of those astronauts actually explored the vacuum of space. And that’s the key because out there, spacesuits have to be highly reflective. And the best colour for that isn’t silver, it’s white.

Cathleen Lewis: White is the colour that reflects back the radiation most effectively while in outer space.

Narrator: Here on Earth, our atmosphere shields us from 77% of the sun’s radiation. But astronauts in space don’t have that natural shield, making them vulnerable to blistering temperatures, severe sunburn, and even cancer-causing cell damage. So to combat that, they wear white suits that reflect the sun’s harmful radiation. It’s just like how painting a wall white keeps the room cooler than a dark colour because lighter paint absorbs 35% less heat.

Cathleen Lewis: It’s the ideal colour to keep the astronauts safe. If you’re planning to go out in outer space, that reflective nature is an absolute.

Narrator: But those white EVA suits aren’t the only garment in an astronaut’s closet. When heading into space or coming home, NASA astronauts wear a bright orange suit similar in colour to the safety vests Air Force pilots wear, and it’s for similar reasons because that loud orange stands out against the blue ocean and sky and is perfect for attracting attention, so if there’s a malfunction during landing and astronauts have to abandon ship, so to speak, they need to be easy to spot for rescue crews. That’s why orange was the colour of choice for missions like Russia’s Vostok program as well as current ISS launch and reentry suits.

That being said, times are changing. Nowadays we have more sophisticated ways of locating astronauts in need of rescue, like GPS trackers and transponders, so space agencies are now free to get creative with their colour choices. NASA and other programs are already starting to use other colours like deep blue and mustard yellow. And in the future, they could look a lot different because NASA is heading to Mars. It will be the longest crewed space mission to date, taking as long as three years from start to finish, and during that time, astronauts could suffer from boredom or depression. That’s where colourful spacesuits could be useful.

Cathleen Lewis: You may want to have a variation of colours or even interchangeable cover layers for the suits just to avoid the trials of monotony. That’s a very deep concern. People who are in a very high-stress job, who are in a very small, confined space, and it is a very monotonous space.

Narrator: Just imagine a rainbow spacesuit for a new age of exploration.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2019.

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