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Less Michelin Man, More Barbarella: Space Suits Get Stylish

Space garb is entering a new dimension, propelled by competition among private ventures seeking to carry NASA astronauts—and eventually private citizens—into orbit. New technologies mean it will finally be possible to leave the planet in style.


By

Daniel Michaels and

Andy Pasztor

In “Star Trek,” Lieutenant Uhura wore a miniskirt and go-go boots. Astronauts in “2001: A Space Odyssey” floated in snug orange, yellow and blue space suits. Jane Fonda’s interstellar Barbarella sported a see-through top.

Real astronaut Neil Armstrong wore a bulky Michelin Man moon suit, and from 1995 space shuttle astronauts launching into orbit wore orange outfits known as “pumpkin suits.” Scientists today on the international space station bounce around in frat-house fashion staples, including cargo shorts from Nebraska-based hunting and camping outfitter Cabela’s.

Barbarella

“It’s a step up from Walmart , ” sniffs Ted Southern, president of space-gear maker Final Frontier Design in Brooklyn, who previously designed wings for Victoria’s Secret runway models.

Now, it seems, the future will finally look like it was supposed to—cool. Space garb is entering a new dimension, propelled by competition among private ventures seeking to carry NASA astronauts—and eventually private citizens—into orbit. New technologies mean it will finally be possible to leave the planet in style.

Elon Musk recently revealed the sleek flight suit, topped by Daft Punk-style headgear, his company created for crews to wear inside its Dragon capsule when headed for the international space station. SpaceX says it is on track to start ferrying U.S. astronauts to the orbiting laboratory as soon as this fall.

The goal was for people to see it and think, “Yeah, I wanna wear that thing one day,” Mr. Musk said in a video posted online.

“It does really look cool,” says Shane Jacobs, Softgoods Design Manager at David Clark Co., NASA’s go-to source for space suits. He says with space suits made under traditional government contracts, “any ounce of effort spent beyond function was not money well spent.”

Some rocketeers maintain that down-to-earth view. “We’re not going to turn a swimsuit into a space suit,” says Charles Precourt, a former astronaut and ex-head of NASA’s astronaut corps, now a senior Orbital ATK Inc. official. “You have to realize what’s really fantasy.”

Yet even the David Clark firm is getting hip. Mr. Jacobs recently designed a trim flight suit for Boeing Co.’s new space capsule that is royal blue and includes boots produced with sportswear brand Reebok. Designers there took the same approach as for mass-market athletic gear.

“If it functions well and it doesn’t look cool, we say that’s a fail,” says Reebok Creative Director Dan Hobson. Boeing’s vehicle is slated to carry people to the space station within a year.

Project Mercury astronauts in 1959. Front row, left to right: Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter; back row: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.Photo: NASA

A NASA spokeswoman says today’s suits are “more form-fitting for ease of mobility.”

Flight suits like the new SpaceX and Boeing togs, worn during launch and re-entry, only need to protect astronauts in an emergency. That has allowed them to benefit most from new textile technologies that weigh about 40% less than their predecessors. They offer updated features such as gloves that work on touch screens.

The Reebok team, unabashed about aping Hollywood, tested a boot design based on ones Sigourney Weaver wore in “Aliens.”

“It worked surprisingly well” but proved less functional than other designs, Mr. Hobson says.

Hollywood in Space

Stylish in Space

The astronaut clothing on TV shows and in movies has ranged from the mod and be-caped, to the more realistic jump suits and helmets.

‘Star Trek’Everett Collection

‘Lost in Space’Everett Collection

‘Battlestar Galactica’Everett Collection

‘Alien’Photofest

‘Gravity’Everett Collection

‘The Martian’Everett Collection

Focusing on color, they also tested metallic hues, none of which proved sufficiently space-age. “Getting fireproof materials in reflective is hard,” he says.

The outfit still isn’t slinky and is “not necessarily too flattering in the derrière area,” acknowledges Chris Ferguson, another former astronaut, who is in charge of developing Boeing’s space taxis.

“If you look at yourself in the mirror,” he says, the question is, “Do I look dumb?”

He notes that flight suits are designed mainly for sitting near the controls, so it is hard to straighten the knees, and historically their stiff joints made them awkward on Earth. With Russian models, “There’s a bit of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” look,” says Mr. Ferguson.

Early space suits, like the svelte silver ones worn by Mercury astronauts of “The Right Stuff,” never left a capsule. Once men started stepping into space, they needed much more protection. Attire grew thicker and bulkier, and the clothes need heating and cooling systems with built-in power sources. Astronauts also don what NASA calls a “Maximum Absorption Garment”—adult diapers.

MIT and Prof. Dava Newman are using a new approach to develop the BioSuit, a flexible space suit that is pressurized with electrically activated coils embedded in the fabric. Photo: Professor Dava Newman, MIT: Inventor, Science and Engineering Guillermo Trotti, A.I.A., Trotti and Associates, Inc. (Cambridge, MA): Design Dainese (Vincenca, Italy): Fabrication Douglas Sonders: Photography

Micrometeors, space debris and sharp moon rocks risk puncturing garments, meaning spacewalks and lunar jaunts require textiles not seen on a catwalk.

“Any space suit—it’s the world’s smallest spacecraft,” says Dava Newman, a professor of astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is working on space suit enhancements.

A big challenge is stopping astronauts’ bodies from expanding and bursting. On Earth, atmospheric pressure holds us in shape, but outer space has almost no pressure. To survive, humans need to wear suits that provide about 30% of the usual pressure at sea level.

Traditionally, this compression has been achieved by filling an impermeable suit lining with oxygen or other gas. A stiffer outer layer on the suit holds the “bladder layer” in shape.

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Older versions were both bulky and clammy. The materials used—mainly rubber—meant suits “were like a human-shaped dishwashing glove,” says Mr. Jacobs, the design manager at David Clark.

Prof. Newman at MIT is developing a new approach, in which pressure comes not from gas but from tiny electrically activated coils embedded in fabric. Her BioSuit pressure layer, in development for 15 years, is skintight and would significantly slim any orbital ensemble while providing flexibility. An eye-catching crisscross pattern covering the body looks like decoration but results from algorithms determining where pressure coils should run.

The BioSuit might even cross the gender barrier while crossing the sound barrier.

“Anytime you can tell a female astronaut from a male astronaut in a space suit,” quips Prof. Newman, paraphrasing a former NASA director, “That’s a good thing.”

Write to Daniel Michaels at daniel.michaels@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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