Design

The People Have Voted, and NASA's New Spacesuit Design Is Hot


The "technology" suit pays homage to spacesuit achievements of the past while incorporating subtle elements of the future.

Courtesy NASA

The "technology" suit pays homage to spacesuit achievements of the past while incorporating subtle elements of the future.

Just because NASA has stopped flying manned space missions doesn’t mean it wants to stop developing the suit that will be used to walk on the moon. Last month, NASA asked the public to vote on three versions of its next-generation spacesuit design, the Z-2, and now it has a winner: “technology,” a gray uniform with glowing patches of turquoise on its upper and lower torso.

The new design, a subtle homage to spacesuits of yore, is a follow-up to 2012’s Z-1, a Buzz Lightyear-esque getup that won accolades, including being named one of the year’s best inventions by Time. It was also the first major overhaul of the spacewalking suit in about three decades, featuring a soft, flexible body for greater astronaut mobility.
 
This year the NASA team returned to the hard composite torso of previous iterations, finding in testing that the Z-1’s flexibility also created restrictions, such as a smaller allowable torso size. Such engineering details were worked out internally, but to decide on the surface details, the space organization turned to its patrons: American taxpayers. The winning design, dubbed “technology,” uses Luminex wire and light-emitting patches that could be customized to help identify individual crewmembers.

One of two runners-up, the 'biomimicry' design draws from an environment with many parallels to the harshness of space: the world's oceans.Courtesy NASAOne of two runners-up, the 'biomimicry' design draws from an environment with many parallels to the harshness of space: the world's oceans.

The Z-2, which cost $4.4 million to develop, according to Wired, despite using 3D printing technologies that make prototyping quicker and cheaper. The suit combines a number of firsts: It’s the first “surface specific” mobility suit (in other words, it’s made for walking on the surface of the moon) to be tested in a full vacuum; it’s also the first time 3D-printed hardware has been used to develop a uniform with a resizable hard upper torso. It integrates a “suitport” on the back of its rigid shell, which allows astronauts to put on a suit hanging outside the spacecraft while still in the vehicle, then detach without debris entering and contaminating the interior.

Those functions were decided by the pros at NASA. But following the positive response to the Z-1, the agency acknowledged that innovative design can kick up interest in space exploration at a time when the cash-strapped organization’s most high-profile projects have fallen victim to budget cuts. The Z-2 is still in the experimental phase and won’t be deployed. (Although the outer layer of the Z-2 can resist the abrasion and snags that occur in testing, it does not offer protection from the micrometeorites, heat, and radiation found in space.) It will instead be used to test new technologies in safer environments before being deployed in the field.

'Trends in society,' the other runner-up, is based on just that—being reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future.Courtesy NASA'Trends in society,' the other runner-up, is based on just that—being reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future.

“Technology,” which will be built by November, beat out two other candidates: “biomimicry,” which mirrors the bioluminescence of aquatic creatures found in the deep ocean and the tough, scaly skin of fish and reptiles, as well as “trends in society,” a rather unimaginative prediction of what everyday clothes will look like in the future—contrast stitching and bright colors that are frankly not that different from today’s workout pants. All three designs were produced in collaboration with ILC Dover, NASA’s primary suit vendor, and Philadelphia University.

Visual flair aside, the Z-2 is a far cry from the skintight Star Trek uniforms one might expect in the 21st century. At the same time, maybe we should thank our lucky stars that the spacesuits of the future are unflattering on every body type.

Lanks is the design editor of Businessweek.com.

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