Spacesuit Style

Gizmodo is reporting that SpaceX has hired costume designer Jose Fernandez, whose work appears in Batman v Superman, Tron: Legacy, The Avengers, Iron Man, and other movies, to design the spacesuits to be used in non-NASA launches aboard the company’s Dragon capsule.

It might be better to say that Fernandez will be styling the suits, since spacesuit design is a pretty technical area. Reportedly, the plan is to begin with a concept design and then engineer it to work from there. It’s a logical move from a company that’s shown a demonstrable love for science fiction (naming its landing barges after spaceships from Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels) and flair for good PR.

SpaceX’s suits will probably go into service along side those used by NASA, who have always been aware of the need for space suit style. As Nicholas de Monchaux explains in his fabulous book Fashioning Apollo, NASA sexed-up its earliest pressure suits – which were essential US Navy pilot’s gear – by adding a layer of silver to make them seem more futuristic. More recently, its experimental Z-series suits have revealed their own touches of fashion. The Z-1, for example, is often nicknamed the “Buzz Lightyear Suit” because of its green striping. For the Z-2, introduced a few years later, NASA commissioned students three different designs from Philadelphia University fashion students and offered the public the change to vote for their favourite: the winner? The Tron-esque “Technology” option.

NASA’s engineers are aware of the demand for cool, Science-Fictional suits, and appreciative of the chance to make some aesthetic tweaks to what’s otherwise a practical design. Talking to io9 last year, suit designer Amy Ross explained:

We’re engineers, and this is space hardware. So a game I used to play with my mentor is “Why is this feature on the suit?” Because this is a very highly engineered product. If there’s a feature there, it’s there for a reason, not just because it looks cool. As fun as that would be, we don’t get that luxury very often.

So with Z1 and Z2, we’ve been given that freedom to think a little bit about what it looks like, and it’s been a lot of fun because spacesuits are cool. We all grew up with these movies too. Hollywood has some really neat things going on and with commercial space coming up, everybody wants to look cool as an astronaut. We don’t usually get to do that but with Z1 and Z2 we really had the opportunity to think a little more about what it’s going to look like.

Both the Z-1 and Z-2 look a lot bulkier than preliminary images of the SpaceX suit I’ve seen because what SpaceX is creating is only a “pressure suit,” designed to be worn inside the pressurized capsule, not a “space suit” that will be exposed to the rigors of extravehicular activity or a moon- or mars-walk. In fact, though suits like the A7L used on Apollo were custom-designed masterpieces, the pressure suits used by Space Shuttle crews over the subsequent thirty years were quick conversions of existing suits.

Until the Challenger disaster in 1986, Shuttle crews flew without pressure suits at all. The Launch Entry Suit that was issued after the accident was a modified version of a existing design by the David Clark Company used by NASA’s Dryden Research Center, combined with a nonconformal helmet that had been tested by the US Air Force for U-2 pilots. When the Air Force introduced a new pressure suit for test pilots, NASA adopted that as its Advanced Crew Escape Suit (details of both can be found in a NASA-sponsored history of US pressure suits, Dressing for Altitude).

Given that one of the early instructions was to look “badass,” we can assume that SpaceX will adopt something sleeker, more form-fitting, and a lot cooler looking. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what they choose.

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