What’s a pressure suit?

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Pressure suits regulate air pressure for high-altitude pilots and astronauts in low or no air pressure environments. Altitudes above 50,000 feet require a pressure suit for safe function. Military and space suits share common characteristics. Altitude sickness can occur above 33,000 feet, and supplemental oxygen is required above 39,000 feet. Space suits require more sophisticated thermal management and radiation protection. Atmospheric diving suits protect from high external water pressure.

A pressure suit regulates the air pressure a user is exposed to. They are used by high-altitude pilots and astronauts operating in environments with low or no air pressure. Humans who are exposed to altitudes above approximately 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) will need a pressure suit to function safely. Military suits and space suits share many common characteristics.

Humans evolved on the surface of the Earth, where the air pressure is relatively uniform. Higher altitudes have substantially lower atmospheric pressure; the air pressure atop Asia’s Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is about one-third that at sea level. Although humans can survive on most surfaces with high altitudes, low air pressure can hamper breathing and other bodily functions. In environments reached by high-altitude aircraft and spacecraft, humans cannot survive unprotected for more than a few minutes.

At altitudes above approximately 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) above sea level, supplemental respiratory oxygen is usually required to prevent hypoxia. Hypoxia is a general deprivation of oxygen in the body and can cause a number of adverse symptoms collectively called altitude sickness. Above approximately 39,000 feet (12,000 meters), supplemental breathing oxygen with additional pressure is required to prevent these symptoms.

Many aircraft operate at altitudes low enough to avoid the need for a pressure suit. The pressure you feel in your ears when you step off an airplane, however, is the result of increased pressure near the surface. Many military aircraft, on the other hand, fly at altitudes where a full pressure suit is required to maintain health. These pressure suits typically include a helmet with a microphone and loudspeakers to facilitate communication with others. They also involve oxygen breathing equipment, thermal insulation layers, and even urine collection devices.

In space, there is no air pressure at all, so a pressure suit is required to exit a vehicle. Astronauts within the walls of a pressurized spacecraft don’t need to wear a pressure suit to breathe. These pressure suits, commonly called space suits, are in many ways similar to aircraft pressure suits. Typically, however, they will involve more sophisticated thermal management systems. Radiation protection in space is also a major design priority.

Divers who need protection from the higher pressure of deep water wear what is called an atmospheric diving suit. This type of suit also needs to supply the user with oxygen, but the mechanical structure is fundamentally different from pressure suits. Rather than maintaining high internal air pressure, the suit must withstand high external water pressure. This is why these suits look somewhat like armor.

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