Who Invented the Space Suit?

Brian Myers - Dec 2, 2021, 2:59pm CST
Who Invented the Space Suit?

Before humankind was able to explore the sky outside of Earth’s orbit, we first had to get an understanding of what happens to our bodies once we ascend past a certain elevation. Fly too high in the sky and the human body will succumb to a lack of oxygen. And if you survive that, the colder atmosphere will surely lead to hypothermia. Believe it or not, it took the perseverance of one determined Spaniard to figure out how to work around those issues, allowing for exploring the skies at great heights.

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His name was Emilio Herrera, and his motivation was not to create a suit in which he could traverse outer space. Rather, Herrera was set on building a suit that would allow him to explore the skies in a hot air balloon.

Herrera was born into a wealthy family in Granada, Spain in 1879 (via Open Mind). Drawing on inspiration from both his military father and the novels of Jules Verne, Herrera became passionate about the fields of aerostatics and aviation. He joined the army as a young adult and graduated from the Engineers Academy in Guadalajara. Herrera emphasized his studies in the field of aerostats, a more technical term for hot air balloons.

While in the Spanish army, Herrera was part of the Hot Air Balloon Unit. He participated in many successful missions over the northern part of Africa. Herrera also earned the distinction of becoming the first person to cross the Strait of Gibraltar by balloon.

Herrera wished to push balloon travel to the limit. Traveling upwards into the Stratosphere was his goal, but he knew it was one that had dire consequences for many who had attempted it before (via The Fanatic). This second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere begins nine miles above the planet’s ground level. According to NASA, it stretches to 31 miles above the Earth’s surface. Traveling at this altitude had meant death for those who tried before, prompting Herrera to invent gear to make this quest possible.

Along with a vessel that could safely rise to higher altitudes, Herrera knew he would need to make a specialized suit to protect the rider. To accomplish this, he designed a suit that had a wool layer, covering the person from head to toe in this material. As wool will absorb the liquid in the atmosphere, Herrera added a second layer made of rubber to his suit to protect the wool from moisture. A steel-threaded final layer was added, encasing the suit entirely.

Completing this suit was an aluminum helmet, complete with rebreathing apparatuses, thermometers, and microphones. The prototype was completed in 1935.

Sadly, this suit was never able to be tested. Soon after it was crafted, civil war broke out in Spain in 1936. Herrera, loyal to the Republic, fled in exile to South America. He later settled in France. During World War II, Herrera was offered money for his suit by the Nazi government, which he refused.

Herrera’s design had not gone unnoticed, but did not fall into practical use until NASA offered money for his assistance some 30 years after his first prototype was created. Herrera declined NASA’s request for help in creating a new space suit when they refused to place a Spanish Republic flag on the helmet.

Nonetheless, Herrera’s suit was the inspiration for the design of NASA’s first space-used space suit. Nearly 100 years after Herrara’s suit was first built, inspiration from his design can still be seen in astronaut gear created by space organizations of all sorts, and indeed in those space suits in active use today.


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