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Motherboard

Why NASA Wants You to Dress Its Astronauts

NASA's new spacesuit designs are innovative, futuristic, and up to you.

by Becky Ferreira
Mar 27 2014, 4:40pm
Image NASA Johnson Space Center

This week, a team of engineers based out of NASA's Johnson Space Center unveiled their newest spacesuit prototypes: the Z-2 series. Using the momentum generated by the inaugural Z-1 series—which was essentially Buzz Lightyear's spacesuit without the pop-out wings—the JSC team have invited the public into the actual design process with Z-2. You can vote for your favorite prototype here.

This is a brilliant move by the JSC, and yet another indication that NASA is getting its mojo back after the beleaguered Space Shuttle years. The online poll is a great way to take the public's temperature about future missions and gage the overall interest in manned spaceflight. But most importantly, the spacesuit isn't just a flashy makeover, but a substantive step towards planetary exploration. 

For example, it's the first newly designed suit to be to be vacuum-tested by a human being for over 30 years. It's designed for planetary mobility, which sends a strong message about NASA's intention to stay in the game when it comes to manned exploration of the other worlds. And some of the improvements are deliciously sci-fi. For the first time, 3D human laser scans and 3D-printed hardware have been used to make a super-individualized fit. The upper and lower torso of the suit use the most advanced impact resistant composites ever built into a prototype. Yet despite these additions, the Z-2 weighs less than the current model.

“We are creating a better tool for astronauts,” said advanced suit team lead Amy Ross in an AMA. “Our goal is to make a suit that protects the astronauts and lets them do their work without making them tired or even having to think about their suit. We haven't reached our goal, but we have made vast improvement over the current suit.”

In addition to the practical upgrades, the designs are invitingly weird. The first, called “Biomimicry,” takes its inspiration from bioluminescent organisms, tipping its hat to extremophiles in particular. The second, “Technology,” is a retrofuturist's wet dream. And the third, “Trends in Society” is “reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future.” That should be exciting for any space enthusiast, because it suggests NASA is still committed to making spaceflight accessible to civilians one day.

The Tron-style "Technology" design. Photo via NASA Johnson Space Center.

In the same AMA, the team delved into all the essential topics, like whether you can poop in the Z-2 suit (it is “not recommended”) and what kind of unlikely dangerous scenarios the suit can withstand.

“Your buddy pushes you off of the porch of your Mars lander on the top of Olympus Mons,” answered Ross. “You roll down Olympus Mons, bounce across the surface and disappear over the lip of a crater. Your battered suit comes to rest in the freezing shadow at the bottom of the crater. An alien eats you. All because you ate the last Oreo.” Good to know.

But in between the joke questions, the team provided some great insights into the future of spacesuits more generally. In the long-term, they are looking to evolve beyond the bubble-style full pressure suits, either by integrating nanotech restraint layers or developing spray-on suits out of Fabricon. They also expressed interest in pursuing a mechanical counter-pressure suit, a skintight alternative to the traditional lumpy spacesuit.

“We are very glad to see progress being made on MCP and in addition, we ourselves are actively funding development of these materials,” said suit/human interface lead Shane McFarland. “Many of us view MCP as having a place in the future of spacesuit design, although when advances in technology allow that future to occur is a big unknown. In the meantime, we are looking at developing flight capability to support missions in the next 5-15 years.”

So while we'll have to wait at least a few decades for form-fitting space unitards, it's exciting that real advances are being made with the full pressure design. The polls close on April 15, so be sure to cast your vote soon. In the meantime, check out the team's AMA for more info about resisting itches in orbit and creating a spacesuit for doge. Much suit. So space. WOW.