NASA’s work on the Z-1 was the first step in the developmental platform known as the Z-series, and an attempt to push the envelope on the capabilities of a “soft” exploration suit in terms of mobility. It also provided a platform for testing the other game changing technology in suited exploration, the suitport.
The Z-1 was primarily used as a testbed, providing a first look at a number of technologies enabling spacewalks both on planetary surfaces and in microgravity. Increased mobility was accomplished through innovations in shoulder and hip joints, using a number of new bearings to allow space suit wearers to dip, walk and bend with ease; all important tasks for a planetary explorer collecting samples or traveling over rough terrain. The upper torso, aside from these shoulder and waist bearings, was made of a durable soft goods material capable of handling the suit’s increased pressure. This is a marked departure from the traditional “hard” composite torsos found in NASA’s current spacewalking suit, the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. One distinct advantage of this architecture was a decrease in the overall suit mass, with the suit weighing in at just 126 pounds.
The other important innovation that was tested with the Z1 was the concept of a suitport, which is an interface between the interior of a space vehicle and the spacesuit that is mounted on the exterior of a space vehicle. This allows the wearer to quickly get into the spacesuit from the interior of a spacecraft then detach it from the suitport and begin exploring, while also protecting the interior from any outside dust or debris. Donning a suit from a suit port has never been attempted under pressure and this is something the Z-1 enabled. Created to interface with a handful of new docking mechanisms, the Z-1’s suitport design was tested in a vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center to great success. The suit itself also came equipped with features on the gloves and boots to enable tightening for a better fit while fully pressurized, a necessity in real exploration scenarios.
After extensive testing and engineering design, the team came away with a number of important lessons. They learned that while some increased mobility was favorable, such as greater waist abduction and adduction, it led to less than favorable conditions like a smaller allowable torso size. Test runs with the suitport also gave NASA engineers important experience with donning a suit that is already pressurized, which turned out to be more difficult than expected but was enhanced by the addition of donning aids. Overall, the Z-1 was a great improvement in mobility and the lessons learned are already being applied to the next suit in development, the Z-2.