Encyclopedia of Bioastronautics

Living Edition
| Editors: Laurence R. Young, Jeffrey P. Sutton


  • Brad Holschuh
  • Dava NewmanEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-10152-1_18-1



Extravehicular activity (EVA) is defined as any activity performed by an astronaut or cosmonaut, outside of the vehicle/habitat, beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This includes both microgravity activities (e.g., outside a vehicle or station while in orbit) and partial gravity activities (e.g., Lunar or Martian surface exploration).

Detailed Description

Extravehicular activity (EVA), or spacewalking, is an integral aspect of human space exploration – it is the phase of the mission where astronauts have the opportunity to directly interact with a space or planetary environment, enabling unique opportunities for science, engineering, and exploration. The first EVA was conducted by cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on March 18, 1965; since Leonov’s historic venture outside his spacecraft on the Voskhod 2 mission, hundreds of EVAs have been conducted for a variety of purposes, including deploying and repairing deep-space telescopes (e.g., the Hubble Space Telescope [HST]), exploring another planetary body (e.g., the Apollo program), and assembling and maintaining space station infrastructure (e.g., the International Space Station [ISS]) (NASA 1999, 2007, 2005). Several examples of EVA are shown in Fig. 1. At the time of this writing (August 30, 2015), a total of 377 EVAs have been conducted by 211 astronauts/cosmonauts (NASA 2008).
Fig. 1

Several examples of EVA: (left) preparations for the Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 3A; (center) Apollo 11 surface EVA; (right) the first spacewalk on the international space station. (All images courtesy of NASA and used with permission per the NASA general media usage guidelines)

EVA History

Both microgravity (i.e., on orbit) and partial gravity (i.e., on another planetary body) EVA have been successfully conducted by NASA astronauts, Soviet/Russian cosmonauts, and astronauts from eight other spacefaring partner nations. Here we provide a short summary of the history of EVA operations.

The space race between the USA and USSR, representing the dawn of the human space exploration era, saw a variety of EVA conducted. First, several low-Earth orbit microgravity EVAs were conducted by both programs between 1965 and 1969 (e.g., Leonov’s historic Voskhod 2 EVA, NASA Gemini and early Apollo EVA, and Soyuz- Soyuz EVA). Next, and perhaps most famously, came the Apollo Lunar missions (1969–1972), during which American astronauts walked the Lunar surface for the first time in human history. A total of 15 surface EVAs were conducted between Apollo 11 and 17, including 9 EVAs using the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) – a specially designed, battery-powered electric vehicle used to traverse long distances on Apollo 15–17. An iconic EVA photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar surface during the historic Apollo 11 mission is included as Fig. 2 (NASA 2007).
Fig. 2

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin conducting EVA on the Lunar surface on the Apollo 11 mission. (Image courtesy of NASA and used with permission per the NASA general media usage guidelines)

The Apollo program produced the first (and to date, only) instances of planetary EVA, which included tasks such as scientific equipment deployment, rock sample collection, photography, and even a bit of golf. Additionally, three trans-Earth EVAs were conducted as the spacecraft transited between Earth and Lunar orbit. These represent the first successful attempts at deep-space EVA. Following the final Apollo mission, human space activities were once again relegated to Earth orbit, where we remain to this day.

In the wake of the Apollo program, the modern era of EVA firmly took shape with the advent of the modern space station (e.g., Skylab, Salyut, Mir) and the US Space Shuttle Program (offering increased crew and cargo sizes), leading to the penultimate construction of the ISS in 2011. EVA became commonplace on space missions during this era, often including multi-team crews performing science, construction, and maintenance activities. Since the end of the Apollo era, a total of 347 EVA have been conducted – representing 92% of the total EVA performed in the history of the space program (NASA 2008).

Risks and Issues Associated with EVA

EVAs are inherently risky: astronauts must don space suits to protect themselves from the unforgiving vacuum of space (or local planetary atmosphere) and must perform physically demanding tasks to achieve mission goals. Any mishap – from a failure of the onboard life-support system to an astronaut injury or accident – could result in mission failure or even death. In this section we briefly enumerate known risks and issues associated with EVA:

Decompression Sickness (DCS)

Space suits worn by astronauts are gas-pressurized, surrounding the wearer with an artificial atmosphere to provide both breathing gas and full-body counter-pressure (two life-support necessities). This pressurization causes soft suit materials to stiffen, greatly decreasing suit mobility. To combat this effect, suits are designed to operate at low pressure (typically 29.6 kPa/4.3 psi). This requires the use of pure oxygen, rather than air, to ensure sufficient oxygen for respiration. However, space vehicles and habitats are often maintained with air at atmospheric pressure (e.g., the ISS runs air at 101.3 kPa). Consequently, when astronauts transition from high to low pressure as they don their space suits, they are at risk for decompression sickness (DCS) – a condition that arises when tissue inert gas partial pressures exceed ambient pressure, resulting in gas bubble formation that can have serious health implications (Buckey 2006).

To prevent DCS onset in space, astronauts are required to perform prebreathe (PB) protocols in advance of an upcoming EVA. These protocols typically require the astronauts to breathe gases with elevated oxygen content to purge excess nitrogen from their body. Specific protocols include 4-h, in-suit pure oxygen PB; overnight air lock “camp-out” PB using 26.5% O2 gas at 10.2 psi; and PB protocols that combine exercise with increased oxygen content exposure. To date, no DCS events have been recorded in space (Conkin et al. 2015).

Workload, Injury, Metabolism, and Temperature Control

Due to the physical nature of EVA tasks (and the extra work required to manipulate the stiff space suit), astronauts are at significant risk for both overheating and exhaustion/injury during EVA operations. To keep astronauts cool, undergarments are typically worn that contain a network of small tubes to circulate chilled water over the body – known as liquid cooling and ventilation garments (LCVGs). The current space suit used by US astronauts, the extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), can handle a continuous thermal load of 252 kcal/h. Astronaut metabolic rates for Shuttle EVAs averaged 195 kcal/h, well within the capability of the LCVG (Buckey 2006). This represents a significant improvement over initial suit designs, where overheating and visor fogging were common experiences (e.g., nearly leading to catastrophe on Leonov’s historic first EVA) (Buckey 2006).

Astronaut injury during EVA, especially during long duration missions where both musculoskeletal deconditioning is expected and frequent EVAs are required, can be debilitating. In particular, soft-tissue damage and joint injuries are common, as is onycholysis (fingernail delamination) (Opperman et al. 2010). These issues stem from a variety of issues, including poor suit sizing, poor task selection, and overexertion/repeat exposure. To combat EVA injury, proper suit sizing is critical, as well as astronaut conditioning, and thoughtful consideration of EVA task selection and frequency.

Thermal, Radiation, and Debris Protection

In addition to the hazard posed by vacuum exposure, the space environment includes additional hazards associated with thermal loading, radiation, and debris collision. For example, temperature on the Lunar surface can vary between 100 K and almost 400 K between day and night phases (Larson and Pranke 2000), imposing significant thermal loads on astronauts when outside of the protection of their vehicle/habitat. Space debris – both naturally occurring, like micrometeorites, and artificial, like space junk or remnants of other spacecraft/satellites – can travel at speeds in excess of 10 km/s, presenting significant hazard to an astronaut on EVA (Larson and Pranke 2000). And radiation hazards – both from solar particle events (SPEs) and from galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) – pose serious risk to astronaut health beyond the protective influence of Earth’s magnetic field (Larson and Pranke 2000; Buckey 2006).

To protect against these hazards, space suits are designed with protective thermal micrometeoroid garments (TMG) on their exterior, which serve to shield the wearer from each of these environmental threats. TMG garments are typically constructed from materials such as aluminized Mylar, Dacron, Kevlar, and Nomex (see Fig. 3) (NASA 1998). While the garment is able to partially protect the astronaut from these threats, limiting EVA time to prevent unnecessary exposure is also recommended.
Fig. 3

Depiction of the multilayered EMU suit system, demonstrating the pressure garment, LCVG, and TMG layers. (Image courtesy of NASA and used with permission per the NASA general media usage guidelines)

Space Suit System Failure

The space suit worn by an astronaut on EVA represents the first and only defense against the hazardous space environment (as previously discussed), as well as the sole life-support system keeping the astronaut alive (including oxygen delivery, carbon dioxide scrubbing, humidity control, thermal control, food/water delivery, and waste removal) (Larson and Pranke 2000). Trade-offs exist between system robustness, system redundancy, simplicity, and mass. A failure in life-support or suit structure – such as a suit puncture or a fluid leak – could have catastrophic consequences.

This exact scenario manifested on July 16, 2013, on ISS EVA-23. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano was forced to abort the EVA due to a fluid leak in his helmet. His visibility and breathing were both impaired, with water covering his eyes, nose, and ears, requiring him to navigate back to the air lock using the manual feel of his safety tether cable. The source of the leak was ultimately attributed to a plugged water separator – a very minor hardware mishap – that led to an urgent, emergency situation on orbit (NASA 2013).

Effect of Space Suit Design on EVA Performance

As previously mentioned, suit architecture decisions significantly affect EVA safety and performance. In addition to potential DCS hazards associated with low suit operating pressures, suit mass and mobility play large roles in astronaut health, effectiveness, and efficiency. Further, microgravity EVA differs considerably from partial gravity (surface) EVA in terms of task allocation and operational requirements: microgravity EVA requires extensive arm and hand manipulations (and benefits from stiff lower body joints used for anchoring/leverage), whereas surface EVA requires full-body mobility and low mass to enable locomotion and exploration in the presence of partial gravity.

The current US suit used for ISS EVA – the EMU – is optimized for use in a weightless environment. The EMU incorporates a hard upper torso (HUT), soft arm/glove segments, and soft lower body elements. It forgoes lower body mobility (the legs stiffen straight when pressurized), as such mobility is not typically required for zero-gravity ambulation (astronauts instead use their arms/hands to propel themselves). The total suit system mass is 178 kg (equivalent to 393 lbs under Earth gravity), which is of less concern in a weightless environment (NASA 1998). The EMU is depicted in Fig. 4 (NASA 2015a).
Fig. 4

Space suit systems optimized for differing EVA requirements: (left) EMU, optimized for microgravity EVA; (center) Mark III, optimized for planetary EVA requiring lower body mobility; (right) MIT BioSuit™, a skintight mechanical counter-pressure (MCP) suit concept designed to provide advanced mobility with low mass/bulk. (EMU and Mark III images courtesy of NASA and used with permission per the NASA general media usage guidelines)

An advanced US suit concept – the Mark III – is under development for future planetary exploration missions. In anticipation of full-body EVA mobility requirements, the Mark III suit incorporates a hard lower torso complete with rotational hip bearings designed to enable a wide range of hip mobility. Further, the Mark III is significantly lower in mass (59 kg) than the EMU, which is more suitable for use in partial gravity environments. The Mark III is depicted in Fig. 4 (NASA 2015b).

Finally, an alternate space suit concept known as a mechanical counter-pressure (MCP) suit promises radical improvements in EVA mobility and reductions in suit mass compared to traditional gas-pressurized suits. MCP suits provide pressure to the wearer using tight-fitting materials rather than pressurized gas, providing necessary pressurization for life support without mobility limitations. MCP suits were demonstrated over four decades ago (Annis and Webb 1971), but work continues today to produce a flight-ready prototype (Newman et al. 2004). An MCP suit concept – the MIT BioSuit™– is depicted in Fig. 4 (Newman 2015).


EVA is a highly complex, potentially hazardous, yet critically important component of human space exploration. Mitigating risk during EVA requires strategic suit design, optimized task analysis, conscientious planning, and advanced life support and protective technologies. Failures during EVA can result in loss of mission and, worse, loss of life; however, successes during EVA can result in hugely important scientific breakthroughs and iconic human achievements.


  1. Annis J, Webb P (1971) Development of a space activity suit. Tech. repGoogle Scholar
  2. Buckey JC (2006) Space physiology. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Conkin J, Norcross J, Wessel J, Abercromby A, Klein J, Dervay J, Gernhardt M (2015) Evidence report: Risk of decompression sickness (dcs). Tech. rep., NASA Human Research ProgramGoogle Scholar
  4. Larson WJ, Pranke LK (2000) Human spaceflight: mission analysis and design. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  5. NASA (1998) The space shuttle extravehicular mobility unit (emu). Tech. rep., NASA: Suited for SpacewalkingGoogle Scholar
  6. NASA (1999) Flight day 6 – eva day 3 – images. URL http://asd.gsfc.nasa.gov/archive/sm3a/day_6_images.html
  7. NASA (2005) First spacewalk on the international space station. URL https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/sts088702024_feature.html
  8. NASA (2007) Apollo 11 image gallery. URL http://history.nasa.gov/ap11ann/kippsphotos/apollo.html
  9. NASA (2008) Extravehicular activities (eva) statistics. URL http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/somd/reports/eva.html
  10. NASA (2013) International space station (iss) eva suit water intrusion – high visibility close call. URL https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/Suit_Water_Intrusion_Mishap_Investigation_Report.pdf
  11. NASA (2015b) Mark iii imageGoogle Scholar
  12. Newman DJ, Bethke K, Carr C, Hoffman J, Trotti G (2004) Astronaut bio-suit system to enable planetary exploration. In: 55th international astronautical congressGoogle Scholar
  13. Opperman RA, Waldie J, Natapoff A, Newman DJ, Jones JA (2010) Probability of spacesuit-induced fingernail trauma is associated with hand circumference. Aviat Space Environ Med 81(10):907–913CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wearable Technology Laboratory (WTL), Department of Design, Housing and ApparelUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.Human Systems Laboratory (HSL), Department of Aeronautics and AstronauticsMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)CambridgeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Leticia Vega
    • 1
  1. 1.NASA Johnson Space CenterHouston, TXUSA