Monday, January 30, 2017

Boeing's Stylish New Space Suits

          By Brian Orlotti

Boeing has unveiled a new spacesuit design for astronauts travelling to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its upcoming Starliner spacecraft. This new design, dubbed ‘Boeing Blue,’ will be more comfortable, capable and stylish than those of the Space Shuttle era---the first of a new generation.

The future of the spacesuit is supermodern, superlight and packed with 21st century tech according to the January 26th, 2017 Wired video "Boeing Blue is the Latest in a Long Line of Space Suits." Screenshot c/o Wired.

The Boeing Blue incorporates lessons learned from legacy spacesuits while utilizing new materials and innovations. They include:
  • The use of advanced materials and new joint patterns, making the suit lighter and more flexible. 
  • Helmet, visor, and boots integrated into the suit rather than detachable.
  • Touchscreen-sensitive gloves.
  • A pourous skin that vents water vapour from the suits but retains air, keeping the wearer cool yet pressurized.
  • Strategically located zippers allowing wearers to adjust their suit’s shape when standing or sitting.
The full Boeing Blue spacesuit weighs roughly 9 kg with all accessories, about 5 kg lighter than the suits worn by Space Shuttle astronauts. Flight tests with astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner are (after several delays) now slated to begin in 2018.

While legacy space firms like Boeing have opted for updated versions of tried-and-true designs, newer players are taking a different approach.

In May 2016, reports emerged that Hawthorne, CA-based SpaceX had hired Jose Fernandez, founder and lead designer at Ironhead Studios, to design their spacesuits.

As outlined in the May 4th, 2016 Mail Online post, "Elon Musk wants to create ‘superhero astronauts’: SpaceX hires Marvel costume designer to make a spacesuit for Mars," Ironhead Studios has designed numerous superhero suits for Hollywood, including the modern incarnations of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and Captain America.

The choice of Fernandez reflects SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s desire to jack up space travel’s sex appeal by making spacesuits more stylish and, in Musk’s own words, “badass.” Fernandez’s designs display solid, angular and aggressive aesthetics rather than the soft padded fabric look of legacy spacesuits; body armour rather than diving gear.

Spacesuits from "The Expanse" and "The Martian." Photo's c/o San Diego Comic-Con & Twentieth Century Fox.

Beyond superhero films, this aesthetic can be also be seen in films like Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ and TV series like SyFy’s ‘The Expanse.’ Musk choice of this armor/mechanical aesthetic may also reflect a desire to portray space travel as an aggressive, industrial endeavour rather than the strictly scientific emphasis of the past.

SpaceX has not yet revealed any designs, but anticipation remains high.

Whatever the aesthetic, this next generation of spacesuits will enable humans to explore and build in space and on other worlds in safety and style.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network administrator at KPMG and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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