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.