These Spacesuits Signal a New Era of Space Travel

As we enter the second space age, we are being introduced to spacesuits that are being created for tomorrow's space exploration.

On July 2019, there was reporting that NASA’s Artemis goal of 2024 might be delayed. Not because of launch or rocket technology, but because NASA hadn’t developed a new spacesuit that would meet the needs of the mission. Well, Amy Ross and her team must have been hard at work, because on 15th October 2019 we were introduced to the new generation xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit) and Orion crew suits that will be worn by the male, and female astronauts in the first crew to return to the Moon’s surface since 1972.

Amy Ross, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, left, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, second from left, watch as Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing a ground prototype of NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), and Dustin Gohmert, Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit, right, wave after being introduced by the administrator, Tuesday, October 15, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Space Suits and Female Representation

After much disappointment following the cancelled all-female spacewalk this summer, the spacesuit and the implications of its design limitations have been a source of public engagement and frustration. At a time when public interest in NASA could be seen as symbolic, NASA took the momentum from this news to not only rectify the situation but to reemphasize their investment in suits made for all. The Artemis mission suit unveiled the same week that astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir exited the ISS together to finally mark this milestone on 18th October 2019, is truly adaptable to all forms of the astronaut. 

It seems that the necessity to design for a range of body types and frames, male and female, pushed the innovation. We know that the other design constraints are already challenging enough, as Ross describes keeping humans alive in what is essentially a basketball.

This episode at NASA signifies one fundamental difference of the New Space Age, which is a female representation. We not only have more female engineers, including Amy Ross, the lead spacesuit engineer responsible for the one-size-fits-all Artemis design, but also the presence, and increasing numbers of female astronauts.

Making Space Suits Commercial

But this wasn’t the only spacesuit news that signalled a new era of space exploration, another suit was also announced around the same time by Virgin Galactic. Partnering with Under Armour they unveiled the “World’s First Exclusive Spacewear System for Private Astronauts”. In stark contrast of the utilitarian NASA suits, which above all need to aid astronauts in doing their jobs and keeping them alive, the vertically-integrated aerospace company’s suit is purely about the experience. Beth Moses, the chief astronaut trainer at Virgin Galactic, knows that the experience her astronauts are looking for is one of adventure and leisure.

“THE BIG DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUITS OF THE PAST AND THIS SUIT IS THAT THOSE SUITS WERE TO PERFORM A TASK, AND THIS SUIT IS TO ENJOY AND SAVOR SPACE ON YOUR OWN TERMS, IN A BESPOKE WAY.”

Pioneering human spaceflight for private individuals and researchers, the collaboratively designed spacewear system offers a unique combination of comfort and a focus on customer experience, and it could be what space tourists wear on their flight out of Earth’s Atmosphere and into the shallow end of space.  Personally tailored for each astronaut; the suit combines bold and progressive aesthetics that include recognising each astronaut’s personal journey.

Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic collaborated with Y-3 back in 2016, and now the company took on the challenge to build the world’s first commercial spacesuit.” On this said Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank shared, “Innovation is at the core of everything we do and our team delivered a unique twist on the classic spacesuit utilizing both existing and new UA technologies to define space gear for the future.  It is an incredible opportunity to showcase our key performance innovations in space at the highest level and continue to push the limits of human performance.”

Under Armour’s materials design is aimed to promote blood flow during the zero-gravity and keep the wearer cool and dry

As the year draws to the end, the month of October was full of space news that the public can really engage with, including the live stream of Christina Kock and Jessica Meir’s spacewalk. Timing is significant as we approach milestones for NASA’s return the moon and private companies reaching their objectives. Something about seeing these humans overcome challenges under the harsh and stressful circumstances of the spacewalk, along with the new spacesuit demonstrations here on earth, makes the goals of both NASA and Virgin Galactic seem all the more real and attainable. It also demarcates the missions of private space travel and government space travel more concretely.

There will be many travellers in space without years of training and missions to complete. But when more humans return to earth having grasped for themselves the fragility and scale of the Earth in the larger universe, maybe we will begin to see value systems evolve in necessary ways and at an unprecedented scale. We are genuinely in a new era of the Space Age, and the pace is only picking up from here.

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