As a child, I remember some major fears of mine included bear attacks, quicksand, the Bermuda Triangle and somehow getting knocked into the vacuum of outer space. While that probably says a lot about American culture, I am relieved to learn I could very easily make an emergency space suit out of duct tape, if I had to.
Of course, any discussion about this topic must mention that the material most people refer to as “duct tape” actually isn’t commonly used to repair ducting. Instead, it’s most commonly used for quick repairs, included by NASA, or by teenagers making wallets for their friends out of the zebra print tape they bought at Walmart. I used it growing up as torch tinder—you can fold it and wrap it around a stick and light it, and it will burn for a long time.
A television show currently available to stream from Apple, For All Mankind, is about an alternate past where the Soviet Union beats the U.S. to the moon and in the space race at large. At some point, some characters need to move through the low-atmosphere vacuum of the moon and opt to wrap themselves in duct tape, or what NASA calls “grey tape,” to create a pressurized suit.
Scott Manley, an astrophysicist on YouTube, broke down the “real” science behind the show’s suits, and it seems like they’re totally feasible:
According to Manley, the show depicts what’s called a mechanical pressure suit. Unlike the giant puffy space suits NASA astronauts usually wear, which are pressurized to create an atmosphere around the body, a mechanical pressure suit sucks tight around the body, and with a face mask and the right breathing technique, your body can actually move through space in such a suit for a short amount of time.
Manley also says that the mechanical properties of common “grey tape” is strong enough that just one or two layers of the stuff would be enough to create an effective suit. He calculated the average human body would only require one or two rolls of the tape for such a suit.
The major limiting factor to such a suit is the breathing apparatus. The tape suit would have to wrap around an oxygen face mask, and it appears the show uses the sort that are commonly used to fight fires. Such a mask does offer enough pressure to provide air flow above what’s called the “Armstrong limit” in a vacuum. The only difference is your breathing technique has to change from pulling air in to using your lungs to force air back out.
Manley did some actual math to calculate just how long such a mechanical pressure suit made of tape could feasibly keep someone alive and determined that, depending on the oxygen supply, a person could stay conscious for up to a minute. He claims that, if the body were exposed on its own, you’d have about 15 seconds. That’s a pretty good gain!
In the show, they only give themselves about 15 seconds to get from one structure to another. They could have gone longer! But then again, if any part of the suit exposes your skin to the vacuum, your blood will rush into that part and not leave and it will start to swell, and things will get painful. I don’t blame them for rushing.