Space Fashion: How New Spacesuits Keep Astronauts Safe And Sound

Jun 13, 2019

The most expensive suit ever made in the history of mankind: over $20 million each, and not even designed for Earth! It’s more than a suit; it is an individual spacecraft, loaded with equipment and systems. The design is as sleek as it is complicated. All so that humankind – rulers on Earth- aren’t completely defenseless when we venture beyond. Atmospheric pressure changes and even minor changes in oxygen levels greatly affect our mood and ability to remain conscious. What would we experience venturing beyond Earth?

In a short time, when an increasing number of people will be sent into space and private and tourist flights begin to take place, you will need to think about design.” – Robert Zubrin

Each spacesuit with gloves and a helmet weighs a whopping 127 kilograms on the ground, but once weightless in space, the mass is irrelevant. The spacesuit protects astronauts from extreme temperatures which vary from minus 160 degrees to plus 120 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the dozens of layers assist in protecting from dangerous radiation.

Why for so many years haven’t NASA and Russian Space Agency changed the way spacesuits look and function? Robert Zubrin, advocate for Mars exploration and co-founder of Mars Society, explains it this way: “I think that there was simply no need for it. In a short time, when an increasing number of people will be sent into space and private and tourist flights begin to take place, you will need to think about design. But up to the present moment, no one asked the astronauts: “What suit would you prefer? White, red or maybe polkadots?“ The suits were like an army uniform. But soon, I am sure, spacesuits will be like bicycle helmets – for every taste.

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History of Pressure Suits

The first spacesuits were used for space missions and were connected to the spaceship’s life support system. Engineers understood the fact that if space exploration continued to advance, they would have to create an autonomous spacesuit which didn’t rely on connections to the ship.

The Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) or “pumpkin suit”

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The early spacesuits were not designed for extensive wear and only provided temporary protection. The convenience of wearing the rigid suit was an issue – astronauts were unable to sit on the shock-absorbing chairs and suits were not adjusted to the body size of each astronaut. Today, space flights utilize two classes of suit: a rescue suit for constant wear inside the craft, and EVA suits for operations performed outside the craft. Currently, people fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian “Soyuz” ships, which are equipped with Sokol IVA rescue suits created in the NPP Zvezda.

Their first generation of Sokol suit appeared in 1973, and despite numerous modifications, the core system remains the same: it consists of an inner pressure layer of rubberised polycaprolactam and an outer layer of white nylon canvas. Boots are integrated with the suit but gloves are removable and attach by means of blue anodised aluminium wrist couplings. The polycarbonate visor can open on hinges mounted near the ears and seals with an anodised aluminium clavicle flange when closed; the hood or ‘soft helmet’ folds when the visor is raised. The suit has four pockets and adjustment straps on the arms, legs, chest, and abdomen.

Flight to the neighboring planet will be long, and we can’t avoid the prospect of peril, so astronauts simply cannot go without the security of a spacesuit for extra-vehicular activity (EVA).

The American equivalent of Sokol IVA suit is the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) or “pumpkin suit”, named for the bright orange colour. In general, ACES is very similar to the Soviet-Russian version, aside from safety equipment in the event of a water landing- heat protection, tethered parachute suspension and swimming device. In theory, modified versions of either Sokol IVA suit or ACES would suffice for future Mars flights. The Orlan MKS, the most recent extra-vehicular activity suit developed by NPP Zvezda, has recently been replaced the Orlan MK models on the ISS.

Flight to the neighboring planet will be long, and we can’t avoid the prospect of peril, so astronauts simply cannot go without the security of a spacesuit for extra-vehicular activity (EVA). This is a much more complicated and expensive product, designed for semi-autonomous work, such as repairs, performed in open space. EVA equipment uses complex systems of thermoregulation, oxygen and water supply, ship communication, protection from micrometeorites and solar radiation.

There are a number of such spacesuits in development, but current operation is limited to two full American Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)s, one short EMU, two Orlan suits on the ISS, and four Soyuz crewed launches to the ISS per year with three IVA suited crew. There is also a Chinese crewed mission, which uses an IVA suit that is visually similar to the SokolK.

The Sokol space suit, also known as the Sokol IVA suit or simply the Sokol

Spacesuits for extra-vehicular activity are closer to being a small spacecraft designed for one, with a pricetag to match. For example, the cost of the new American Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) used by NASA astronauts on ISS is around $250 million. NASA’s maintenance costs for its fleet of spacesuits for extra-vehicular activity in orbit and on Earth runs $80 million per year. Despite minor technical improvements, the design of the EMU spacesuit has hardly changed since the 1970s, with the last modification implemented in 1982. For 36 years, astronauts all look the same.

If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the spacesuit market, bear in mind that the future belongs to EVA spacesuits.

If we’ve built a super-heavy class launch vehicle to head to Mars, why don’t we pitch a few more million dollars to scrap the “pumpkin suits”. The biggest problem with designing spacesuits for the surface of another planet is that such systems do not yet exist. Even if NASA would use robots androids like Robonaut-2 in space-based projects, a human-born overseer on the Red Planet will still be required. When people face the hostile environments of new planets they better be wearing a durable suit.

Spacesuit total market size

Continuous flights on the ISS commenced in 2001 and are currently the primary driver of the spacesuit market. The International Space Station can only support six passengers, so seats are devoted to representatives of countries that invest most in the development of station and ongoing missions. Russia has three seats, which is increasing to four, the US typically has two seats, and Japan, Canada and the EU rotate among the last seat. This limited number of seats has created a restricted market, with a low-volume of spacesuits required for operations.

Sub-orbital, near space and space diving add to the market, but are not market drivers.

Market Value and Market Segmentation

If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the spacesuit market, bear in mind that the future belongs to EVA spacesuits. It is expected that as we near 2025, the Chinese Tiangong 2, 3 and Bigelow’s B330 space stations will be fully functional and excellent EVA suits will be required throughout construction. Additionally, EVA suits for missions beyond LEO will be also needed (NASA’s cislunar missions, SpaceX’s Mars missions, ESA’s lunar missions and Lockheed’s planned Mars mission).

Sub-orbital, near space and space diving add to the market, but are not market drivers. IVA suits make up only a small fraction of the total market value due to the low cost in relation to EVA suits.

New ships – new spacesuits

Both Boeing and SpaceX have contracts with NASA for delivering cargo and astronauts to the ISS. Manufacturers claim that spacesuits are ideal for long term missions and, since Boeing and SpaceX each offer different spacecraft, all NASA pilots will receive a new, slightly different uniform. Except the SpaceX and Boeing suits, there are few modern in development.

Chris Ferguson wears the brand new spacesuit from Boeing and David Clark

Boeing IVA suit

Boeing Corporation showed pictures of spacesuits designed for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft crew. The new spacesuit got the name “Boeing Blue” and stands out with a bright blue colour.

The company claims that its suit is more flexible than other spacesuits of this type and 60% lighter. For example, NASA’s current “pumpkin suit” weighs 13.5 kilograms, while a new Boeing lightweight spacesuit weighs 5.4 kilograms.

Among other features, Boeing Blue has a “human-friendly” shape giving astronauts the ability to sit and stand. It is also equipped with communication systems and touch-screen friendly gloves. The helmet provides a wide viewing angle so that the user’s peripheral vision is not impeded. The spacesuit will be also able to withstand pressure during accidental spaceship depressurization.

NASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita “Suni” Williams tests a mock-up of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and spacesuit in April 2018.

SpaceX IVA suit

In 2018, Elon Musk introduced a new type of spacesuit that will serve as a uniform for Crew Dragon-2 astronauts. Information about the features of the suit hasn’t yet been revealed, but the first photo of the suit was published back in August 2018.

Elon Musk said that “it was very difficult to find a balance between aesthetics and functionality.” The design was created by Hollywood designer Jose Fernandez, who created the costumes for Wonder Woman, Batman and Spiderman. The design resembles the aesthetic of John Mollo’s stormtrooper costumes created circa 1977 Star Wars.

Fashion label Y-3 — a collaboration between Adidas and Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto — has joined forces with Virgin Galactic, a spaceflight company within Virgin group, on a collection of space apparel.

Virgin Galactic flight costume

Virgin Galactic has partnered with sportswear label Y-3, itself a collaboration between designer Yoji Yamamoto and Adidas. Y-3 is custom designing uniforms for Virgin Galactic spacecraft pilots to wear during suborbital flights.

The hi-tech flight suit was designed for comfort, and will fully support the pilot’s natural sitting position. The stylish material for the suit was constructed from Nomex Meta-Aramids that can withstand high, short-term temperatures up to 700°C. The prototype of the pilots’ suit and boots was presented in Spaceport America – a private space center for space tourists, located in New Mexico.

Dava Newman models her fashionable BioSuit, which would provide life-sustaining pressure via compression threads woven into the fabric.
(Douglas Sonders/MIT)

Dava Newman Bio-Suit

Many varied groups of scientists collaborated to develop an alternative conceptual spacesuit. With private companies driving the Moon missions, the chances for a starry spacewalk seem closer. For Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Dava Newman and her colleague, the famous astronaut and professor Jeffrey Hoffman, the search for a superior spacesuit seems attainable. Their BioSuit is already a reality: possible to touch and even try on.

Classical concepts of spacesuits maintained optimal pressure by pumping a gas mixture through the suit. Contrarilly, the BioSuit sees the human body mechanically compressed due to the elasticity of the material.

The BioSuit is based on the idea that there is more than one way to apply the necessary pressure to an astronaut’s body. In theory, at least, a form-fitting suit that presses directly on the skin can accomplish the job. All they need is an elastic fabric and a structure that can provide about one-third of sea-level atmospheric pressure, or 4.3 psi (approximately the pressure at the top of Mt. Everest). The skintight suit would allow for a degree of mobility impossible in a gas-filled suit. It would also be potentially safer.

America plans to man the Moon again in 2024, but this time NASA will not build its own ships — politicians concede that private companies are more than capable. In addition, Mars and asteroids are the US new long-term targets in space. It is clear that Americans will not attain this in the next decade – the technology for ships and suits just isn’t there yet. The effect of space on the human body has not yet been studied enough either. Once we have surmounted these obstacles, the sights of sunrise on Mars will certainly be a commodity.

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