What We'll Wear To Mars

The evolution of NASA's space helmets

Concept drawing of the first human explorers on Mars
Concept drawing of the first human explorers on MarsNASA by Ren Wicks

In the 47 years since humans first stepped on the moon, space-helmet technology hasn’t exactly made a giant leap. But the prospect of exploring Mars has NASA’s designers scrambling for their drawing boards. “The requirements are different from anything we’ve done before,” says Dave Lavery, who leads NASA’s Solar System Exploration Program. They include durability (to withstand abrasion in wind storms), flexibility (for yearlong missions), and field of view (for 360-degree visibility).

“The shape [of future helmets] is going to be driven by the ability to see your feet while walking on the rough surface of Mars,” says NASA’s Amy Ross, who designs space suits. Now it’s up to NASA to get us there.

Past — 1960s & '70s
Past — 1960s & '70s
The iconic bubble helmet worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was built to withstand the moon’s extreme temperature swings and protect astronauts’ eyes from solar glare and radiation. At the back, the helmet’s fitted shape cushioned the head in case of an emergency during launch or landing.Douglas Sonders
Present
Present
Today’s helmet is almost identical to the Apollo era’s—bulbous and locked solidly into the neck of the suit—except that this one has cameras and lights. Since the International Space Station circles the Earth every 92 minutes, astronauts might be suddenly plunged into darkness during a spacewalk, so lights are a must.Douglas Sonders
Future — 2030s & '40s
Future — 2030s & '40s
On Mars, visibility and range of motion will be extremely important. That’s why the helmet for the BioSuit—one of the contending designs for a Mars mission—moves freely with the astronaut’s head, like a motorcycle helmet. It will also have a heads-up display with information on navigation, logistics, scheduling, situational awareness, and life support.Douglas Sonders

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Popular Science.