Our space columnist Richard Hollingham bemoans the state of space fashion and looks ahead to the astronaut suits of the future.
There’s no style in space these days.
When astronaut Don Pettit floated through the hatch of the International Space Station (ISS) recently into the Dragon capsule, I was shocked. Here was a highly trained elite astronaut – on live television – wearing a drab t-shirt, unflattering shorts and a garter around his thigh. Worse still, the garter wasn’t even particularly attractive.
It’s not fair to single-out Pettit. Examine other crew members on the ISS and the standard of attire is equally derisory. I’ve even seen an astronaut wearing a deathly socks and sandals combo.
I know clothes in space are worn for practical reasons – Don’s garter allowed him to carry tools or pens around to stop them floating away – but it didn’t do him, or space farers generally, any favours. Yet, it never used to be like this.
Photos of the world’s first astronauts include Alan Shepard on the launch pad in his shiny silver spacesuit, helmet glistening in the Sun, looking every bit the man with the right stuff. Nasa understood that there was an aura around these pioneers and they had to look the part (at least in official photographs). The outfits were developed from the pressurised flight suits of the X-plane test pilots, but whoever decided they should be silver from top to bottom was a genius. Ever since, this is how we’ve expected astronauts to look.
Those early spacesuits were designed to protect their occupants during take-off and splashdown in case of cabin depressurisation. But they really got serious when astronauts started walking in space during EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activity). The suits effectively became personal spacecraft, equipped with life support systems, power, heating and cooling. The spacesuits that allowed men to walk on the Moon were every bit as sophisticated and important to the mission as the Saturn V rocket or Apollo spacecraft that got them there.
But 50 years later, the spacesuits for EVAs are still bulky and cumbersome and the clothes worn in space look like cheap leisurewear. So what’s the discerning space cadet of tomorrow going to be wearing? And can we do better than polyester t-shirts, Velcro garters and Buzz Lightyear spacesuits?
“A spacesuit is not just a garment, it’s way more complex than that,” says Pablo De Leon, Director of the Space Suit Laboratory at the University of North Dakota. De Leon tells me he was inspired to work in space suit design by the Apollo missions and is now funded by Nasa to develop new types of spacesuits. “I see any improvements we can bring into spacesuit technology will be very important for the space explorers of tomorrow.”
His lab makes “planetary surface” spacesuits designed for excursions across the surface of Mars. “We need a durable system that will be able to withstand many months of use and abuse,” he explains.
The suits have to be flexible, lightweight and, above-all, leak proof. This involves developing and testing new textiles, plastics, composites and metals to see how they perform. The aim is to come up with a space suit that allows planetary explorers to move around like they would on Earth.
Unlike suits for spacewalks, the designs have to cope with unique challenges. “Dust is probably one of the single most dangerous problems you face with a planetary spacesuit,” De Leon says. “The particles of dust are very, very sharp…if you get them in between the mechanical components of the suit you can break them.” And that could be fatal.
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.