When humans first step on the dusty red surface of Mars, they will be doing so in a spacesuit descended from a design that the Internet chose: the Nasa Z-2 Spacesuit.
The Z-Series is NASA’s line of prototype spacesuits geared at planetary exploration. They are designed to contain portable life support systems; be quick to put on and take off; and maximize astronaut dexterity in both planetary and micro-gravity environments. The previous iteration, the Z-1, looked like something Buzz Lightyear would wear, and was white in color with big, green neon strips.
With the Z-2, the focus will be on testing the outer layer of the suit’s technology, especially elements like electroluminescent wiring that will make it easier for astronauts to see (and be seen) in space. Although this design in particular won’t go to space, it will still be used in testing, and will advance new technologies that one day will be used in a suit worn by the first humans to step foot on Mars.
Earlier this month, NASA asked the public to vote online between three versions of the next-generation of spacesuit, with the winning design going on to the testing phase. The three options, all designed by NASA, ranged from one that looked like Adidas had won a NASA contract (called “Trends in Society”) to one that looked like it was designed to match the skin tone of alien grays (“Biomimicry”).
In the end, with 233,431 votes cast (63% of the total vote), the winning design is the “Technology” variant of the Z-2. Looking something like Gru from Despicable Me entered the blacklit world of Tron, the winning design will enter testing by fall to see if it’s up for the task of taking America to the Red Planet.
Before you get too excited, here’s a sense check. The winning design isn’t going to Mars: rather, it will inform the Z-3, the next-gen prototype. After an unknown number of Z-series prototypes have been tested, NASA will eventually send astronauts to the Red Planet in a spacesuit descended from the Z-2, but it probably won’t look anything like what NASA’s testing today.
So this whole business about crowdsourcing the design is something of a PR stunt. But that’s okay. A publicly funded (and chronically underfunded) agency like NASA needs all the publicity it can get.
According to NASA, the final version of the Z-2 Suit should enter testing in November 2014. You can read more information about it here.