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Spoilers ahead for season 2 of For All Mankind.

In the finale of For All Mankind season 2 it is necessary for two astronauts to go outside the lunar base to effect repairs, but they have no spacesuits. With the clock ticking they come up with a plan, with help from NASA engineers on Earth, to use duct tape instead. The "suits" they construct look like this:

enter image description here

enter image description here

Essentially duct tape wrapped around the body, over clothing which looks like standard NASA jumpsuits for pressurized environments onboard spacecraft. The masks are described as "oxygen masks that have the full face covering".

The astronauts are the only side for around 20-25 seconds and in the end, die of exposure to vacuum and extreme temperature anyway. They are shown bleeding from gaps in the tape as soon as they experience vacuum.

Is this kind of "suit" at all practical or useful in real life? Say an astronaut needed to pass between two buildings on the surface of the Moon, or between two spacecraft in close proximity, would they provide any benefit?

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    $\begingroup$ How often is duct tape used during crewed space missions? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 25 at 1:34
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    $\begingroup$ It seems that I made the right call to ditch this show after one season. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 5:19
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    $\begingroup$ Worth mentioning that every supply manifest that I have seen has at most 1 roll of gray tape per vehicle. So I doubt they would have enough to cover one person, much less two people. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Apr 25 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ Of all of the bogus claims made on that show, this is the one you question where you question validity? $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    Apr 25 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ This would be a perfect mythbusters episode, duct tape, space, it's be awesome! $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Apr 26 at 10:12
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If the suit would be useful, it has to be inflated. Which is definitively not how it looks like in images. If you could manage duct tape to hold the inner pressure for a moment without rupturing and/or leaking immediately, it would clearly help, but in the same moment, the "suit" would turn so stiff from pressure that it would be impossible to perform any work or even move at all. (This is a real issue with all spacesuits and usual reason why they are pressurized with pure oxygen at lower than atmospheric pressure. Alexey Leonov had to intentionally decrease pressure in his spacesuit to be able to overcome its rigidity and get back into Voskhod spacecraft.).

Actually, they could as well have just jumped outside without any suit-attempt at all. A vacuum won't kill you. Not instantly. On the other hand what will probably kill or at least fatally injure directly is a pressure difference. If there would be zero pressure outside your chest, you tissues wouldn't like it, having 1 bar inside lungs. Better to open your mouth and let all over-pressure out. So definitively no face mask.

This is a good strategy and you are not going to die in seconds or so. Nevertheless the critical problem is that you are losing oxygen from blood much faster than when holding your breath under normal conditions. The time of useful consciousness will be the biggest problem. With your lungs and blood circulation open to nearly-vacuum you have maybe not have more than 10 s for any useful action. You wouldn't die directly afterwards, but you would lose the ability to think and soon afterwards consciousness. (Still fine to recover if someone else could drag you back into normal pressure soon, but that was not an option here, I guess.)

Cold is not an issue. Just do not forget to wear good shoes and thick gloves. Vacuum is the best insulator around, so the only thing to worry about would be contact points. (Maybe you can get some nasty sunburn on uncovered skin, but I doubt it would be critical for such a short time.)

If you somehow made it back still conscious, possible fatal late effects would result from lungs injury (it was really not a good idea to try to hold your breath) and decompression sickness. Hard to tell how much manageable or fatal, depends on available care etc. too.

There is actually one well-known historical case, year 1966, NASA technician Jim LeBlanc got accidentally exposed to vacuum. He was exposed for more than one minute and recovered without any permanent damage. Nevertheless he became unconscious in 15 seconds. There is a paper describing a different near-vacuum incident which resulted in significant pressure-related trauma to lungs, but not death.

And then there is a chapter in A.C.Clark's Earthlight about moving through a vacuum. Yes, fiction, but at least somehow researched.

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    $\begingroup$ The suit does not need to be inflated to provide pressure. Hypothetically, wrapping the duct tape tight enough could do the trick; this is the functional principle behind mechanical counter pressure suits $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Apr 24 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Dragongeek true, I was wondering if I should mention it, but I doubt it is possible to achieve with duct tape (AFAIK these suits are made from stretchy material, aren't they?) And I am not sure if there is anything really working which could be used instead of spacesuit (g-suits are a bit different situation). Anyway the images in question does not look anything like it. $\endgroup$
    – Martin
    Apr 24 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ OK, according to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_counterpressure_suit a more-or-less working prototype does exist, but given the effort and years to get there I do not see it feasible to improvise something like this with tape. $\endgroup$
    – Martin
    Apr 24 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ The reason they are stretchy is because people need to get in and out of them, and in a duct-tape emergency suit this is not really a priority. They'd just have to apply the tape very tightly so that the constrictive force reaches appreciable atmospheric percentages (Armstrong limit ish so like 3-5psi) $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Apr 24 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ In that scene it's said explicitly that the astronauts must exhale their lungs empty when the air is released from the airlock, and after that they have 15 seconds of consciousness. The duct tape is supposed to stop skin from ballooning, so I guess the question is whether that would really happen. I have no idea what the oxygen masks are supposed to be good for. $\endgroup$
    – ojs
    Apr 25 at 21:15
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Completely impossible. The problem is you can't breathe. The average person can only breathe against about 5,000 pascals of pressure. On the summit of Everest you have 5,700 pascals of oxygen.

Beyond that you have the problem that duct tape doesn't stretch. How are you going to inhale at all? If you want to be able to breathe you need a hard helmet and torso.

The limbs are a different issue. I do not believe anyone has actually built a counterpressure suit but the idea has been seriously considered. Counterpressure suits simply apply pressure to the wearer, only the helmet/torso and the seals where the arms and legs go through need to be airtight, the limbs are in vacuum. (Yes, this is safe. The skin can handle it fine, you just need to keep the body from swelling.)

Duct tape is going to have a different problem, though--how do you expect to bend your joints?

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  • $\begingroup$ I was wondering if there's a link about these counter-pressure suits ?? $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Apr 25 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ Amazing. Thanks for the info. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Apr 25 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ They were only supposed to be outside for 15 seconds, you can easily go this long without breathing. $\endgroup$
    – Barmar
    Apr 26 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ If you wrap the counterpressure material around your torso while its inflated by a full or even partial breath, you should still be able to breathe out and then back in while you're still in a pressurized environment. Or at least get some breathing action using your diaphragm. The suit provides an outer limit for expansion, but shouldn't stop you from deflating (either with it if non-rigid, or inside if it rigid). So as long as your airlock can cycle fast enough to get you in/out of low-pressure situations... (Prob. want your buddy inside to work the airlock while you can't think / act.) $\endgroup$ Apr 27 at 6:34
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Interesting question.

First of all, they possibly wouldn't experience extreme temperatures over the period of a part of a minute if they do not touch anything.

The real problem is indeed the possible gaps in the suit, but one should not expect any bleeding. Withdrawing air pressure is not enough to make normal skin bleed.

I think the main problem would be the areas of interface between the mask and the other parts of the suit (in mechanical counterpressure spacesuits the interfaces between the helmet and neck and between gloves and arms would be the biggest problems), mechanical strength of the tape and the ability to stretch the tape with enough pressure (particularly, in the head area, between the legs, armpits, etc).

You also would need to bend your chest tightly so to be able to breath. A tape which is not elastic would be problematic here, because you would need to maintain roughly the same pressure with full and empty lungs.

Actually, there are four types of possible problems:

  • Blood embolism (appearing of bubbles in the blood)
  • Inability to breathe (either inhale or exhale depending on tightness of the tape)
  • Air leaks
  • Local injuries to exposed skin (swelling).
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  • $\begingroup$ re: "if they do not touch anything" it's not too bad either if what they touch isn't too good of a conductor of heat. i'd have said a layer of water could help since water has high heat capacity, but it'd likely boil off from the low pressure so i guess not $\endgroup$
    – somebody
    Apr 26 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @somebody No, a layer of water would be very much bad. It will instantly boil and cool to freeze. If you touch it, you will freeze your fingers. People from cold regions know very well, you never touch metallic surfaces with wet hands in winter, otherwise you leave your skin attached to those surfaces. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Apr 26 at 7:03
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If will work fine, in the extreme short term. Like, 2 minutes tops.

With no protection from the vacuum, you have to void the air from your lungs.. Unconciousness in 15 seconds due to very rapid oxygen loss through the lungs.
(your lungs will also take all sorts of interesting damage, but you will be dead already)

With a pressurized seal, such as this facemask:
If you can maintain acceptable pressure in the lungs, even if not breathing, you are good for about 1 minute, and can live for 2 minutes. Basically, it's just holding your breath. The rest of your body could be completely naked, as long as you can maintain pressure in your respiratory system. Yes, you will take all sorts of damage from exposure, but none of that is lethal, especially in the very short term.

The duct tape will not create an airtight seal. All of that duct tape on the abdomen, arms and legs will just impede movement. Even if you DO get an airtight seal, it will still not allow the lungs to expand or contract, thus making breathing impractical.

A setup like that would work to quickly dash outside, turn a valve, and dash back in. Or to cross from one vehicle to another. But no sustained action will be possible, and the use of all that tape on the arms and body will actually be counterproductive, reducing your ability without providing measurable protection.

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    $\begingroup$ The 15 seconds are mentioned in the show, so I think it's implied that the facemask isn't airtight and the question is about what the duct tape and mask are supposed to help with. $\endgroup$
    – ojs
    Apr 26 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ @ojs ew. with vacuum in the lungs, they anti-breathe. You very rapidly lose oxygen, and the brain shuts down. And even restoring air supply does not guarantee you will live, the alveoli dry up and collapse within seconds in full vacuum. Triple damage bonus if the pressure loss is rapid enough to be "explosive". $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 26 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ Spoiler: in the show they do a quick dash to flick a switch and switch a plug to a different socket, then die after making it back to airlock, the writers seem to know what you just wrote and the question why the duct tape and mask is still unanswered. $\endgroup$
    – ojs
    Apr 26 at 12:14
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    $\begingroup$ sounds as if it should have worked, then. Or could have, at least. Maybe they just needed a better brand of duck tape? $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 26 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ If you are completely naked, you lose blood pressure and die due to embolism. That's why the tape is needed. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    May 5 at 16:39
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First of all, the idea as proposed in the movie is pretty crazy. What they would more likely use is Kapton tape, which is a kind of space rated duct tape. It's yellow-brown, actually could hold an atmosphere reasonably well for a short period of time, wouldn't outgas, etc. See the two compared below.

enter image description here

There are two obvious problems for the show in this regard. First of all, Kapton table is slightly translucent, which would make it a problem for much TV! Secondly, it isn't as well known.

As to if it would even be useful, it is theoretically possible to put Kapton tape over clothing, if done properly it could be air tight enough for a short period of time. As others have mentioned, exposure to a vacuum has problems that rate something as follows:

  1. Too much air in lungs, "blowing up"- Death in a few seconds.
  2. Exhale, but pure exposure- Death in maybe 30 seconds, would be hard to do anything, but theoretically possible.
  3. Some kind of a face mask, but otherwise no pressure suit- Death by the inability to breath out. Similar to the case of holding breath under water, death in a few minutes, or less if exertion.
  4. Pressure band around chest, any "holes" in the body covered- This could actually work for maybe 10-15 minutes, or even longer. If one can put enough pressure around the chest to allow for breathing out, and all bodily holes are covered, then some bruising would certainly result, but otherwise not be too bad.

So if I was going to propose such a situation, I would suggest using something to contract around the lungs, use Kapton tap, and probably make sure to cover up any other holes in the skin where fluids might come out. If all of those things were done, and the face mask was properly sealed around one's face, survival for a few minutes isn't out of the possibility.

Of some note is that the Apollo Moonwalkers did something somewhat similar. They dropped the life support systems out the hatch before taking off from the Moon from the lunar module. To accomplish this, they wore their suits, opened up the hatch, and either threw the backpack out, or kicked it out. They were actually hooked up to the LM life support system for this operation, although they could have had a short period (Around 5 minutes) without being hooked up. Theoretically they could do a 5 minute EVA with these suits on, which there were some contingency procedures that might be required. If you are interested, Scott Manley has an excellent video on that subject, linked below.

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    $\begingroup$ You're correct about the Apollo astronauts throwing out the portable life support systems. However, they were connected by hoses to the spacecraft's environmental system, not just simply relying on the residual suit oxygen. These hoses were a critical part of the Apollo 13 LiOH adapter. $\endgroup$
    – DrSheldon
    Apr 26 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Got it, will fix it in a sec. But they still theoretically could have survived for short periods of time without the connection. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Apr 26 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ The tape should be tight not only on chest so to maintain suitable blood pressure. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    May 5 at 16:48
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Yes

At least according to this recent video by Scott Manley. He points out that purely mechanical compression suits for high altitude flights exist and work. For example the suit Felix Baumgartner wore during his Red Bull Stratos skydiving jump from 40km altitude. You need a certain oxygen pressure in your lungs to avoid boiling of water and to be able to take up oxygen. Once you are above that pressure you can quickly reach several minutes of useful consciousness. You can counter the pressure inside the lungs with straps around the chest (to avoid exploding your lungs). The straps don’t have to be airtight or pressurized. He points out that compression on limbs would be useful because it would avoid swelling.

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it would have to be pressurized. EVA suits require a cooling suit to regulate temperature, because the outside of the spacesuit itself can become extremely hot or cold and would cause burns if touched directly with skin/thin fabric of only a flightsuit. i would say unpressurized, it would be ineffective and you would die. just because one COULD last in a suit with only the face pressurized, doesn't mean that's ideal, it would cause damage due to having your body exposed to the vacuum of space

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    $\begingroup$ "Not ideal" and "All we can do to try and save our lives" are conflicting drivers here. guess which one gets priority? $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 26 at 6:18
  • $\begingroup$ No pressure, no alive astronauts, in my opinion. I can accept using an EVA suit patched with duct tape for a minute, but the situation described in the post sounds like a very bad idea, as you need the rest of your body working to move, and with it exposed as described it would be very cold. I think even 2 minutes like your response says is pushing it. $\endgroup$
    – jezero
    Apr 26 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ Your skin will be very cold, from the forced evaporation of the water in the upper skin. It would take about 5 minutes before this causes local freezing. Oxygen will be a problem long before this. No pressure also means veins rupturing, extreme drying of the skin, etc. Any body orifice needs to be plugged, or accept venting. This is only really a problem with eyes and ears, and their facemasks would cover that. Contact with very hot or cold items is not an immediate problem, they are wearing normal flight suits with nonsealing gloves, etc. Space is not cold, it is just empty $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 26 at 6:56
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with what you're saying, but considering that entering and exiting a spacecraft can take a long time, and that the moon has its own gravity which makes moving different than on Earth, it's very unlikely that this kind of spacesuit would suffice, if we are using real spacecraft with our real hypothetical science $\endgroup$
    – jezero
    Apr 26 at 7:01
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Radiation would be a problem. Nasa space suits are radiation shielded, as well as pressurized, contain a drinking water tube as well as a way to get rid of that water at the other end. Space is full of hard radiation. Cosmic rays are high speed particles that can cause serious damage to your cells, resulting in cancer or other issues. Astronauts who have spent a long time in space tend to develop eyesight problems, probably from radiation exposure even inside heavily shielded ships.

Unless this tape is a couple of inches thick and made of a dense element like lead, it's not going to help much with radiation, and you're probably going to get sick, in addition to all the exposure and pressure problems people have already discussed!

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