About a month ago, SpaceX's Dragon capsule landed safely in the Pacific Ocean after completing the first ever commercial expedition to the International Space Station. Granted, it was only tasked with the mundane chore of delivering 'supplies', but even if it were delivering a bunch of space pens and a pool table, the flight was an incredible milestone in the marriage of private companies and spaceflight.
Aside from the obligatory excitement that comes from the realization that the future is actually happening before our eyes, I'm oddly excited to see companies blossom, flourish, and crumble under the weight of capitalism's crushing fist.
There is no shortage of big players in the space game, most notably Richard Branson and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who are both interested primarily in the Space Plane tourism route. But their notoriety, paired with their being in the business of giving rich people the opportunity to drink cocktails while literally overlooking a world of middle-class Earthlings, distracts from the fact that they are a pretty marginal minority of the burgeoning space industry.
The other side is largely based in practicality, with companies like SpaceX and Boeing creating capsules that are meant to house scientists and science cargo, not just overindulgent space nerds with successful porn-media conglomerates.
This is essentially the bizarre cross-section of the private space industry that I'm so eager to watch unfold. I love the idea that both people who made a fortune on double penetration web videos and scientists with PhDs will actually be inhabiting the same environment together, and with very few other people between them to bridge this gap.
The bigger picture, though, is that the same crushing capitalism is going to push scientific innovation, which in turn will trickle into more consumer-facing badassery. Think of the Internet. We might not have breadedcats.com if David Karp hadn't ousted Blogger with a much simpler and more aesthetically interesting Tumblr. Furthermore, since the world has been fantasizing about dicking around in space for centuries, the cultural tension between Richard Branson's stupid space parties and genuine attempts at pursuing scientific enlightenment beyond our planet is visibly thick.
Now I'm sure there are plenty of examples of companies whose consumer driven science innovation is becoming glaringly obvious on the outside. But there's one company specifically that's keenly self-aware of the matter. They're called Orbital Outfitters, and as the name might suggest, they make suits.
OO suit. Image: Orbital Outfitters
First of all, just because you'll be thinking about it constantly if I don't address it right now, isn't their name hilarious? The answer is yes, and it's a perfect example of what this modern space age is all about. Orbital Outfitters was formed in 2006 to make spacesuits that are both affordable and appropriate for the vehicle in which they'll be used. According to CEO Jeff Feige, it has been entirely privately financed and has taken on all private projects thus far. In 2007, they released the first ever commercial spacesuit called the IS3C. The suit was made, first and foremost, for safety and practical engineering needs, but even founder Rick Tumlinson himself recognizes that it's designed to meet the "marketing and design challenges of manufacturing spacesuits for the next era of space travel." I assume those challenges are things like dry martini Camelbacks, and mobility for a comfortable putting stance.
To add to Orbital Outfitters' already comically exemplary business profile, Orbital Outfitters' Chief Designer is a guy named Chris Gilman, the CEO and Founder of one of the most successful special effects companies in Hollywood. Among his dense and impressive portfolio is the design of the MTV Moon Man, and all of the space suits from Austin Powers. In reference to the IS3C, Gilman said, "We not only have to be able to save someone's life in an emergency, we have to make him or her look and feel good at the same time."
He says this matter-of-factly, but really this must be the first time anyone has ever expressed a genuinely meaningful opinion about how people should look in or around space. Unless there's a closet diva (Aldrin?) in the short list of space alumni, there really shouldn't be anyone vacuous enough to comment on how they look in a spacesuit. Right? Until now, the people intricately involved in space travel have just wanted to survive and justify their Stanford post-graduate debt. But alas, times are truly changing. Human beings with an extra $200,000 to spend on a few weeks sitting in a room 25 miles from earth are really that vacuous. So, Orbital Outfitters is rightfully in the market of making fashionable designer spacesuits that look like everyone's favorite Hollywood spacesuits, which is both sad and hilarious.
I don't want to make Orbital Outfitters out to be soulless opportunists. They really just happen to be exemplifying the incredibly odd nature of watching the consumer space industry happen. The fact of the matter is that space tourism is sexy. It feels like how Dubai probably seemed sometime immediately before, or maybe just after, they built that ridiculous sailboat hotel. There is an immense opportunity to innovate and move forward as a society, but to do so the innovators have to partially cater to rich peoples' desire for stupid shit.
Feige skirted this topic when he discussed the concept of 'SpaceDiving' at the NewSpace conference in 2011. He described SpaceDiving as a "trademark term" that's essentially skydiving from 100,000-150,000 feet, as compared to properly "diving from space," which is coming down from 62 miles. It's not a new concept. It's actually relatively old, with Joe Kittinger's 102,800-foot dive in 1960 being the current record. As you'd expect though, there's a pretty nice list of people, including game guru Richard Garriott who want to break that record now that we're all freewheeling up there. So, as the marquee suit designer for the general notion of commercial space, Orbital Outfitters has rightfully become the marquee outfitter for arguably the most gratuitous aspect of space tourism.
And yet Feige says that he doesn't care about the record, or any singular, one time stunts. He's interested in developing the technology "to make sure that you can do this if you get thrown off the vehicle, if the vehicle is damaged, if you're in an ejection situation in an unplanned way, in an unplanned attitude, even if the person is unconscious." Essentially, he wants to make a spacesuit that's completely autonomous, so that when the idiot oil tycoon decides that he wants to skydive from space, and barfs up 90-day aged steak in his helmet, he'll still land comfortable on the Earth's surface. Orbital Outfitters may be capitalizing on stunts like this – and the people who want to look sexy in the suit that's used primarily to save their life – but they're using it as an opportunity to innovate in blatantly progressive ways.
Lots of smart people are comparing this formative time to the late teens and early 20s of the 20th century, when the aviation industry incubated all the big dreamin', little Billy Boeings ready to make a name for themselves in the complicated science of air travel. Nearly a century later, we can watch a Mila Kunis movie and fly three time zones to the left for about the price of an expensive pair of jeans. If this simile proves to be useful, then it's only a short span of time before we'll be able to say to our space children, "I still remember when SpaceX first started delivering hot tubs to the International Space Station and Kim Kardashian released her failed line of Diamond Space Helmets." And maybe, while we're in hibernation, the kids, headed out on romantic spacewalks, will forgo their personal forcefields and sneak into our closet to borrow one of our vintage designer suits.