The Perplexing Problem of Designing Gloves for Space

Since the first spacewalk, designers have attempted to create gloves that are comfortable, flexible under pressure, provide protection, and offer warmth.

By Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Aleksei Leonov's First SpacewalkSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Gloves may seem like a simple garment designed to keep our tiniest appendages warm, dry, and safe, but fashioning a pair fit for the extremes of space has been a problem perplexing designers for years.

Spacesuit gloves are the most limiting factor in the kind of work astronauts can do in space.

Aleksei Leonov's First Spacewalk, March 18, 1965

Buzz Aldrin;s Glove Dip FormsSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Design Challenge: Comfort

Spacesuits for the Apollo program were custom made. Gloves were built using hand casts of each astronaut. First, a plaster cast was made followed by a more general rubber mold like this one.

The joints in the rubber mold were enlarged beyond the original plaster casts so that the final glove would have enough space for astronauts to bend their knuckles.

Buzz Aldrin's Glove Dip Forms

Space Shuttle Comfort GloveSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Hand casts were replaced with digital scans during the Space Shuttle era. Astronauts’ hands were scanned and then matched to a library of more than 200 hand shapes and sizes.

These modern spacesuit gloves were tighter, which made comfort gloves, like these, a popular option. Comfort gloves added a layer of fabric between the astronaut’s skin and additional outer gloves.

Made of silk, the gloves also made it easier to put on and take off larger gloves.

Shuttle Phase VI Restraint LayerSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Design Challenge: Pressure and Restraint

Astronaut gloves are made up of many different layers. The pressure layer keeps air inside the spacesuit. The restraint layer fits over the pressure layer and helps maintain the shape and size of the glove. Finally, a Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG) layer adds protection against fast travelling particles and sharp objects.

This restraint layer was designed for use on the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

The small white threads along the fingers can be adjusted by the astronaut to improve comfort. The blue clips help adjust and hold the white threads in place.

Shuttle Phase VI Restraint Layer

Shuttle Glove Restraint LayerSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Ed White's G5-C Training Glove Ed White's G5-C Training Glove, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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This combination restraint and TMG layer was used as a training glove for astronaut Ed White as backup commander on Gemini VII.

Nylon straps on the palm cover restraint straps. Pockets in the fingers held lights that attached to the index and middle fingertips.

AX-2 Glove, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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NASA continuously experiments with spacesuit designs. This glove was developed at the NASA Ames Research Center as part of hard suit research.

Rings around the wrist contain ball bearings to allow smooth movement of the wrist in any direction.

MOL Developmental Glove MOL Developmental GloveSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

This glove was developed by the Hamilton Standard Corporation for the United States Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program in the early 1960s. The intelligence-gathering program never became operational.

Shark skin was used on the fingertips to give a better sense of touch and grip. Metal was embedded to create false fingernails.

Gene Cernan’s Modified IV to EV GloveSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Design Challenge: Protection

Outer gloves protect against sunlight, fast traveling particles, and sharp tools. They often extend into gauntlets that cover wrist connections.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan used this glove training for Apollo 10. The glove is made of a woven stainless steel-chromium fabric known as Chromel-R. The fabric is coated in silicone to provide a smoother surface and prevent fragmentation.

The high-strength silicone rubber fingertips provided extra sensitivity for astronauts that had to do work on the Moon.

Vasily Tsibliyev’s Soyuz TM-17 Orlan Glove Vasily Tsibliyev’s Soyuz TM-17 Orlan Glove, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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Cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev wore this glove during his Mir 23 mission in 1997. The Russians used textured rubber to improve grip.

Vasily Tsibliyev’s Soyuz TM-17 Orlan Glove Vasily Tsibliyev’s Soyuz TM-17 Orlan GloveSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Under the palm restraint flap is a checklist the cosmonaut used during spacewalks. The black ink on the outside of the flap is Tsibliyev’s signature and a note.

Wear is visible on the palm where the rubber raised dots have been smoothed down.

Kathryn Sullivan’s Shuttle Glove, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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Kathryn Sullivan wore this glove on the STS 41-G mission in 1984 when she performed the first spacewalk by an American woman.

The palm is made of Vectran, one of many new fabrics used to increase grip and protect against abrasions.

The fingertips are made of the same blue silicon that was used on Apollo lunar gloves.

EVA Thermal MittenSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

Design Challenge: Warmth

The temperature can swing as much as +/-250 degrees Celsius between sunlight and shadow in space. Designers have created a number of elements to keep astronauts' hands warm. 

This mitten would have fit over a shuttle outer glove with velcro to retain a maximum amount of warmth between activities. An “L” signifies that the mitten was meant for the left hand. The mitten concept was never tested in flight.

EVA Thermal Mitten

Shuttle Phase VI Glove, PrototypeSmithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

This glove shows the interior heating elements in the glove fingers.

Cables connect to a power supply that heats the fingertips. The Phase VI glove design is the most recently used glove by American astronauts.

The red strands are wires for the heaters. The gold thermofoils at the top of each finger are what distribute the heat. Finally, white padding on each finger was added to keep the heat close to the finger.

Astronauts High Five in Space, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
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SEE MORE SPACESUITS from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum‘s collection: s.si.edu/gci-spacesuit

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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