To get the full Mars experience, De Leon and his team have been testing the suits out in the “badlands” of North Dakota in the middle of winter. “During the week, the temperatures on the surface of Mars were consistently warmer than North Dakota,” he recalls. “So we were joking that if we designed a suit for North Dakota in winter, then it would be perfectly fine for Mars!”
But, aside from practical matters, does he ever take appearance into account, I ask. “No we don’t…perhaps we should…” he says. “I see a space suit and to me it’s beautiful just by the fact that it’s functional.”
To be fair, his spacesuits look pretty good - not far off the ribbed space garments of the movie 2001. And, whilst he acknowledges appearance is not the overriding concern, he says that may soon change, at least for a certain sector of the space-faring population. “It’s something that will have more importance for the world of private spaceflight, for space tourism where the customers will like to look cool in their space suits.”
Virgin Galactic, which is planning its first sub-orbital test flights later this year, seems to have taken on this challenge. Its website shows conceptual images of space tourists in figure hugging suits with stylish gold-tinted visors.
The suits are similar in look to those developed by a team led by Dava Newman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her “BioSuit” functions as a second skin, but unlike the Virgin concepts, this would be a fully fledged suit capable of protecting astronauts outside their ship. Whereas existing spacesuits are full of pressurised air to keep the body alive – and together – with the BioSuit, that pressure is provided by the elastic fabric of the suit. The figure-hugging design also contains all the necessary heating and cooling systems.
The BioSuit is the closest concept yet to the outfits of Star Trek. This worked fine for Leonard Nimoy (Spock), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and many of the younger members of the Enterprise crew but less well for William Shatner (Captain Kirk), particularly as the series progressed (one Simpsons episode suggests Homer employ a ‘Shatner belt’ to keep his gut under control).
Now, I’m not suggesting the crew of the ISS start dressing in figure-hugging spandex... just yet. But I do think we need to give some serious thought to how we want working spacemen and women, as well as the space explorers of the future, to look. Whether they’re floating around on the ISS, setting foot on Mars or grinning for the camera on a tourist flight. To garner the respect they deserve, astronauts should look like astronauts.