Astronaut tools

July 27, 2012
Astronaut, Spacewalk, Iss

One of the great advantages of working in space is that objects, including the astronauts themselves, have no apparent weight. Regardless of the weight of an object on Earth, a single crew member can move and position that object in orbit with ease provided the crew member has a stable platform from which to work.

The physics of working in space is the same as that of working on Earth. All people and things contain matter and consequently have mass. Because of that mass, they resist any change in motion. Physicists refer to that resistance as inertia. The greater the mass, the greater the inertia.

Like on Earth, to change the motion of objects in space requires an application of force. How much the object moves is explained in part by Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion. The law states that a force causing an object to move one way is met with an equal and opposite force in the other direction. The law is more familiarly stated as, "For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction." The consequence of this law in space is important. A simple Earth task, such as turning a nut with a wrench, can become quite difficult in space because the astronaut- and not the nut- may turn.

Application of force on Earth is easy because we plant our feet firmly on the ground. We can lift heavy objects upward because the equal and opposite force is directed downward through our legs and feet to Earth itself. Earth's inertia is so great that its response to the downward force is infinitesimal. In space, on the other hand, astronauts do not have the advantage of having a planet to stand on to absorb the equal and opposite force during work activities. As explained in the Third Law of Motion, pushing on an object causes the object and the crew member to float away in opposite directions. The rates at which the crew member and the object float away from each other is determined by their respective masses. For example, a massive satellite will move away much more slowly than the less massive astronaut pushing on it. To gain advantage over objects, the spacesuited crew member must be braced, through foot restraints, by a stable platform, such as a massive and actively stabilized Shuttle orbiter or International Space Station.


As Apollo spacesuits were being developed for walking on the surface of the Moon, a special set of tools was designed to assist astronauts in their sample collecting task. The Apollo suits were stiff, and bending at the waist was difficult and awkward. The problem of picking up rocks and soil samples was solved by creating long-handled sampling tools such as scoops and rakes. Because bulky spacesuit gloves made grasping difficult, tool handles were made thicker than normal.

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