What’s a gal (or a guy) to wear—in space?
That question is something you may be asking sooner than you think. The space economy is exploding: NASA is planning for manned flights to Mars, private companies have thousands of space tourists lined up, and asteroid mining is just around the corner.
So that sartorial dilemma is very real, and while major brands like Reebok are working to update the traditional astronaut gear with flair, the real challenge is in making the suits lighter, safer, and more high-tech.
For space tourists and scientists who are expected to stay inside Earth-orbiting ships, that means protection from unexpected complications during launch and re-entry. The suits should help them survive sudden pressure drops, gas leaks, or even fires. At the same time, comfort is also at a premium.
“They’re not going to be military pilots, they’re not going to be highly trained astronauts, and they’re going to be looking to wear something that’s not going to be bulky, heavy, and completely uncomfortable,” says Shane Jacobs, a design manager at David Clark Company, which has been producing spacesuits since the Gemini program of the 1960s. “Starting about 10 or 12 years ago, we started really working hard on developing the lightest-weight suit we could.”
The Worcester, Massachusetts, company is working with Boeing on spacesuits for its upcoming Starliner spacecraft, designed to transport astronauts and tourists to the International Space Station and future private stations. David Clark developed a softer helmet that weighs about two pounds—six pounds less than previous harder-shelled models.
It also combined multiple layers of previous suits into one, to cut the garment’s weight to about 18 pounds, including life-support systems. A lighter suit not only makes astronauts nimbler—it also saves fuel and money, with NASA estimating it costs $10,000 per pound to bring passengers or cargo into Earth’s orbit.
And the savings won’t just come from the suit itself—Jacobs says the company is developing lighter protective gloves compatible with the touch screens in smartphones and tablets. That will help tourists snap selfies in space and let pilots and scientists transport documents and take notes on lightweight tablets.
In addition to weighing less, the new generation of spacesuits is designed to be better looking than the utilitarian government-issued one forever memorialized by the iconic VMA Moonman trophy. That’s something Jacobs acknowledges was never a high priority for NASA and its contractors.
“It was make this suit function—make it work, and don’t really worry about aesthetics or anything like that,” he says. “We don’t really care what the guy looks like, as long as it will save his life.”
Big-name fashion brands are getting a piece of the space-fashion pie. Reebok, working with David Clark, recently unveiled its Space Boot SB-01, which it says is the first update of space boots in 50 years. The boots, which use Reebok’s Floatride Foam, were “exclusively designed to accompany the final space suit that will shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station in Boeing’s new vessel, the CST-100 Starliner,” the company said.
Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company led by billionaire Richard Branson, announced last year that it’s working with Y-3, a fashion label from Adidas and Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, on designs for spaceflight wear.
And in Brooklyn, a startup called Final Frontier Design, founded by designer Ted Southern and engineer Nikolay Moiseev, has entered the market, winning multiple contracts from NASA to develop future suits and components.
“We make garments, and so there’s a lot of fabric welding, but there’s also sewing involved,” says Southern, the company’s president. “But that means New York City is a pretty good place to be.”
Final Frontier has worked on individual suit components like gloves, but it’s also aiming for a piece of the market for suits geared for what NASA calls extravehicular activities (EVA)—operations outside of a spacecraft, from ship maintenance to scientific experiments.
While in-vehicle suits are chiefly designed to protect astronauts from unexpected calamities, EVA suits are designed to protect their wearers from conditions where humans couldn’t survive for more than a minute. They’re pumped full of pressurized gas to protect astronauts from the vacuum conditions in outer space. They guard against cosmic radiation, tiny particles of dust and debris moving at bullet-like speeds, and temperature variations of hundreds of degrees. And they give astronauts oxygen to breathe and water to drink, while siphoning away their waste products and keeping them as comfortable as possible.
“An EVA suit is kind of like a spacecraft for one person,” Southern says, repeating a common industry adage.
That complexity also makes for a more lucrative market—Southern estimates that in-spacecraft suits represent a $20 to $25 million market, while NASA spends $250 to $300 million a year on EVA operations and maintenance. The space agency has also spent close to $200 million on development efforts for the next generation of EVA suits, according to an April audit report from the NASA Office of Inspector General.
The existing generation of suits, used on the International Space Station, “were developed more than 40 years ago and have far outlasted their original 15-year design life,” the audit says, and they’re not designed for operations beyond the Earth and its immediate environs.
That means that getting the next generation of suits ready is critical before NASA’s first scheduled manned mission outside of Earth’s near orbit. The launch is currently planned for April 2021, though many in the space world believe it’s likely to be delayed. The audit report warns the suits may not even be ready for testing on the Space Station before its planned 2024 retirement. Not having suitable EVA suits would naturally hamper the types of scientific work that can be done in space and potentially even crews’ abilities to do emergency repairs.
“I would say there’s no reason to send humans to space if you can’t go EVA, and I think that’s been proven by space operations since [the first U.S. space station] Skylab,” says Southern.
Humans will need that kind of protective gear if and when they make it to Mars. And they’ll also need to be able to move about with a fair bit of dexterity, without relying on the extremely low gravity experienced in other extraterrestrial missions.
One solution may come from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology innovation called the BioSuit, which incorporates tiny, springlike fibers to mechanically pressurize an astronaut’s body without the need of a bulky, gas-filled garment.
Dava Newman, an MIT professor of astronautics and engineering systems who’s worked on the project, says next-generation EVA suits may also feature more modularized life-support systems. Today, the systems that process liquids, gases, and maintain temperature control are mostly contained in one heavy backpack—something that could be unwieldy as astronauts move from ultra-low-gravity orbit to places like Mars, where extra mass can make a significant difference.
“Now you’re a biped again—now you’re an extreme explorer,” says Newman, who is also a former deputy administrator of NASA.
She and her colleagues are working on prototype versions of the suit, with an eye toward future testing in vacuum chambers. They hope to see working versions of the suit on manned missions of the not-so-distant future.
“I think we’ll definitely be able to use it on Mars,” says Newman,