Hollywood’s Spacesuits

A sci-fi historian’s guide to movie spacesuits, from wacky to realistic

All suited up in Moon Zero Two (1969). (Courtesy Gary Westfahl)

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Since the co-author of Destination Moon, Robert A. Heinlein, had also worked on the development of high-altitude pressure suits during World War II, the spacesuits in that film were particularly impressive, which is why they were reused in several later films. But all of the other films listed above also featured reasonably realistic spacesuits. After the launch of the actual American space program, most films merely imitated NASA’s designs, although the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did envision a more advanced model for its future space travelers. (Director Stanley Kubrick, however, deliberately had all of his spacesuits destroyed, since he was aware of the fate of the spacesuits from Destination Moon and did not want his own creations to resurface in any lesser films.) One feature of the spacesuits in both of those films – the use of bright colors to identify individual astronauts and make them conspicuous against the monochromatic background of space – has oddly not been employed in constructing actual spacesuits, though it seems to represent an idea worth considering.

Are there any movie spacesuits that depart from reality? Have you seen anything delightfully wackadoodle?

One of the strangest spacesuit designs, oddly enough, was developed by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and was displayed in an interesting documentary, “Man and the Moon,” which aired as an episode of “Disneyland” in 1955. Von Braun imagined that future astronauts would essentially have to be entombed in a large structure, resembling a top, with a transparent dome to provide a view of one’s surroundings and mechanical arms on all sides to manipulate objects in space. There may have been a certain logic behind his idea, but these contraptions look very bizarre indeed. The semi-pornographic Nude on the Moon (1961) featured some memorably laughable spacesuits, made of a thin skintight fabric that seemed insufficient protection against a cold night in Florida, let alone conditions on the moon; still, they did have leather breastplates and codpieces to provide a semblance of protection. Also, while the astronauts are wearing space helmets and gloves, their bare necks and bare wrists are visible, demonstrating that the spacesuits are spectacularly less than airtight. It was fortunate indeed that the moon these astronauts happened to land on implausibly had a climate resembling Earth’s, because they would have instantly died on the actual moon.

What is your opinion of the Apollo 11 spacesuit film starring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? After the long build-up of imagining men walking on the moon, was the reality in this case a bit of a letdown?

Knowing that this landing on the moon was actually occurring, no viewer could reasonably say that the televised images of Armstrong and Aldrin were disappointing, particularly when they were walking about in unusual ways that persuasively conveyed the moon’s lower gravity. Like billions of others, I sat enthralled in front of the television set during their entire sojourn on the moon. It is also interesting to compare their carefully choreographed activities with scenes from fictional space films, which the administrators of NASA were surely familiar with, particularly the lunar landing sequence of Destination Moon, which in some respects eerily anticipated the actual event. Still, it is amusing to note that when the astronauts planted the American flag on the moon, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite complained that there “ought to be some music” to accompany this event, indicating that the experience, for him, was falling short of the drama of earlier films.

Do you think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece?

I do believe, like many others, that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever made. I especially appreciate the film because it goes about as far as science fiction can go in probing humanity’s future, taking audiences to the point where we come into contact with alien life and start advancing to the next stage of human evolution. As I discuss in my book, the film also presents the unique argument that in order to truly conquer space, humans will have to transform themselves so that they can survive in the vacuum of space (like the Star Child, floating in Earth orbit at the end of the film). Finally, the film wisely says little about the nature of its aliens, and of the advanced human race they create; for attempting to take the story any further – to describe aliens or superhumans in detail – is essentially impossible for human observers, so science fiction works that make the effort merely fall back upon conventional—and very human—characterizations.  This becomes particularly clear if one studies, as I have studied, the disappointing sequels to 2001 written by Arthur C. Clarke, which drop the subject of human advancement and gradually transform the film’s enigmatic aliens into blundering idiots.

Do you agree that some sci fi movies are so bad that they are worth watching? What is your opinion of Plan 9 from Outer Space?

In the course of researching this book, I was required to watch an extraordinary number of films that I could logically anticipate would be very bad, so much so that it became my habit to regularly inform my wife, “I have to go watch another bad science fiction film.” As a result, for a long time my wife mistakenly imagined that “bad science fiction films,” not spacesuit films, represented the actual subject of my next book. However, I derive no pleasure from watching such films merely to laugh at the subpar acting, inane stories, risible dialogue, and atrocious special effects; in one article, I likened this to laughing at handicapped people. Thus, I did sit through Plan 9 from Outer Space once, many years ago, but I never want to go through that mind-numbing experience again.

I do, however, cherish some bad science fiction films because they are also interesting films; by all standards of cinematic excellence, for example, Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965) is every bit as awful as Plan 9 from Outer Space, but it offers a fascinatingly incongruous mixture of narrative patterns from previous space films, and the film does address an important issue, albeit ineptly, the question of whether space travel is best carried out by humans or by machines. Also, most observers regard “The Invisible Enemy” (1964) as one of the very worst episodes of “The Outer Limits,” and I can understand why, because from one perspective it is merely a contrived story about a ludicrous reptilian monster lurking beneath the sands of Mars. However, I discuss that episode at length in The Spacesuit Film because it is focused on another very important issue raised by spaceflight: namely, should missions be controlled by the astronauts on the scene, or by their experienced and well-informed monitors on Earth? The episode presents the argument that the astronauts should be in charge, even though NASA has maintained its policy – incorrectly, in my view – of micromanaging all space missions from the ground.


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