With the unprecedented situation happening on Earth, we get caught up in thoughts about our planet, other planets, and space. In fact, the concept of travel in space might be just about as close in proximity as travelling to Italy these days.
Aerospace company Virgin Galactic, owned by Sir Richard Branson and Aabar Investment PJS of Abu Dhabi is planning to fly passengers to altitudes more than 100 km above Earth by mid-2020s with the first hotel operational by 2025. Against the modest amount of 250,000 USD per seat a private individual or a researcher is to be offered a multi-day experience culminating in a spaceflight with views over the Earth. In the final stages of its development and with two crewed flights of the vehicle in space completed, the project is expected to be commercially launched in 2020.
Additionally, NASA is planning to send astronauts to lunar orbits, the moon’s surface, and Mars by April 2021, though many believe the mission is likely to be postponed to 2024 due to further spacesuit development.
Both these missions require simplified, lighter, versatile and more reliable versions of the long-outdated spacesuits accustomed to working in environments of microgravity and weathering dust storms. This is why it is essential that a performance standard for apparel for space is set.
Simply seen, for us on the ground level, Earth is our spacesuit, the magnetic field of which helps preserve the ozone layer – our shield from dangerous ultraviolet radiation. Furthermore, the thick atmosphere of our planet burns up the majority of incoming rocks, and its environment generates the air that we breathe. When leaving Earth, we need to be provided with the same protection by the extravehicular (EVA) spacesuit. However, a less obvious protection one orbiting above also requires is the inside-the-vehicle suit, which maintains pressure, air, temperature conditions, and protects against G-forces and impact in case of depressurization.
The realization of a need for spacesuit protection came increasingly after 1971 when the Soyuz 11 capsule depressurized during re-entry, killing the three cosmonauts within and more so after the Challenger disaster in 1986, whose crew also suffered depressurization before impact. This lead to NASA mandating inside suits during space shuttle launch and re-entry.
“For ascent-descent suits, the main concern we have is survivability,” says Jason Crusan, director for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, however, comfort and injury neutralization should not be neglected either. “NASA’s suits were not very close-fitting, so once you inflated the suit, it really made it much more difficult to operate,” astronaut Tim Kopra says.
On his second trip to the NASA station in December 2015, Kopra wore the Russian Sokol suit, designed after the Soyuz 11 tragedy. “The Sokol is tailor-made to the individual,” he says. “It fits much more tightly, and is much more closely aligned to your own anthropometrics and ergonomics.”
Following the example, a Brooklyn start-up Final Frontier Design co-founded by former Victoria’s Secret costume designer Ted Southern and engineer Nikolay Moiseev closed a contract with NASA for the development of an intravehicular suit. The model consists of 3D printed and custom-made gloves with molded touchpad-friendly fingertips and a body 10 pounds lighter and three times cheaper than NASA’s previous inside suit. ‘A hybrid suit [with conventionally pressurized torso] would be much lighter and so much better in mobility for planetary excursions than a full pressurized suit.’ Says Southern.
Aside from intravehicular suits and components, Final Frontier is also aiming to provide NASA with EVA equipment for ship maintenance and scientific experiments. “I would say there’s no reason to send humans to space if you can’t go EVA, and I think that’s been proven by space operations since [the first U.S. space station] Skylab,” says Southern.
The urgent need to update extravehicular suits has lead veteran spacesuit designers ILC Dover to transform their Apollo, which was decades ago designed to contain impractical materials like rubber, metal cables and weak zippers. In the 80s these were replaced by plastic and more durable components and the life support has been improved. Nonetheless, 2012 NASA studies showed increased shoulder injury rate among astronauts completed five or more space walks.
Now ILC Dover and NASA are working on an EVA called Z-2, which is meant to cater for greater comfort and an increase of articulation, and provide updated life support systems, contemporary electronics as well as a rear-entry port, which enables the person inside the suit to climb straight in. Even lighter than its predecessor, Z-2 still weighs a lot, driving its designers to look into the option of applying robotic assistance within the joints: motors in the legs would detect the motion and drive the suit in the right direction, whereas robotic gloves will maintain the grip on objects. Such a glove has already been built in a collaboration between NASA and General Motors.
Another solution may come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor of astronautics and engineering systems Dava Newman modelled a working prototype of the so called BioSuit, which is designed to provide life-sustaining pressure through compression threads woven into the fabric. The suit monitors and supports the passenger and is skin-tight which increases mobility and reduces its mass compared to existing suits.
Faced with the extra-terrestrial challenge, the private sector already accepted the dare to produce something skilled spacesuit designers have been struggling with for decades. Collaborations here are more essential than ever, enabling creatives to come together with engineers and NASA scientists in hopes of overcoming the difficulties of designing the ultimate spacesuit.
SpaceX has already designed its own intravehicular suit for upcoming commercial missions with destination the International Space Station and is thought to be working on an EVA for Elon Musk’s Mars colony. However, next to nothing is confirmed about this project except the welcoming of Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez on board.
Following the SpaceX’s progress, Neuro Studio created an in-flight space suit, catering for a variety of crucial aspects of space travel like muscle atrophy and bone deterioration.
A cause for bone and muscle mass loss, change in cardiac performance, variation in behavior and nervous system changes, microgravity’s effect on the human body should be neutralized through a space suit, designed to stimulate the main muscle groups in the human musculoskeletal system and to keep them energized. As an addition, a light exoskeleton supports and protects the most important and fragile bones within the suit.
The Neuro Studio prototype is a viable suit, which could be worn on a trip to Mars and the innovations from this project are already in use in a variety of products throughout the sportswear industry.
The sportswear industry has also been working on spacesuit innovation with Reebok, Y3 and Under Armour having completed their working prototypes already.
A collaboration between Reebok and David Clark, unveiled its Space Boot SB-01: the first update of space boots in 50 years, incorporate Reebok’s Floatride Foam. They have been designed to complete the existing space suit for passengers being shuttled to and from the International Space Station in CST-100 Starliner, Boeing’s new vessel. The spacesuit’s designers Chris Ferguson and Shane Jacobs pride in its lightweight construction and new reduced size helmet, which opens and closes with a zipper for convenience. It also has available easy access input and outtake and reduced size gloves, which enable maneuvering and interaction with touch screen.
Aesthetics have also been taken into consideration when designing the CST-100 Starliner spacesuit: moving away from the iconic but outdated government-issued ‘VMA Moonman’, NASA prioritizes presentation in the new spacesuit with a sleek, but historical design in complete match with the Reebok boots.
In partnership with the International Space Station, Adidas is also testing gravity-neutral products, primarily focusing on rigid, but technical fabrics, including Nomex Meta Aramid, woven through a 3D-engineered pattern.
Along with a spacesuit, Adidas have designed a matching pair of boots, made from Nomex, but also incorporating leather, shock-absorbing adiPRENE heels and enhanced grip TRAXION soles to ease movement of astronauts. They are to be tested during the upcoming Virgin Galactic probation flights alongside with the suit, designed to support the natural posture of the passenger.
Under Armour are yet another sportswear giant committed in the area of space travel: in early 2019 they announced their role as an Exclusive Technical Spacewear Partner for Virgin Galactic, developing the space wear system for the world’s first commercial space line.
“At Under Armour, we pride ourselves on always getting better and leaning into innovation to drive progress for our athletes, but few things can prepare you for a project as challenging and exciting as this one. Spaceflight is a unique and demanding regime and requires a different approach. What we’ve engineered utilizing our key technologies will define the future of spacewear and puts us at the forefront of this history-making event. We are grateful to Richard and the incredible team at Virgin Galactic for trusting us with this groundbreaking challenge.”
– Kevin Plank, founder & CEO, Under Armour
Proving worthy of being assigned this challenge, UA have incorporated UA RUSH technology in the spacesuit, which enhances performance and increases blood flow during the high and zero gravity points of flight and built the base layer with UA’s new Intelliknit zero waste fabric for total moisture and temperature management.
Additionally, the use of UA Clone in the elbows, knees, and footwear increases mobility and zero-distraction feel, whereas their HOVR cushioning, incorporated into shoulder pads and neck area, neutralizes impact during high gravity points of flight.
Inside of the space suit one can find Tencel Luxe, SpinIt and Nomex, used for temperature and moisture management, as well as a clear photo pocket, and outside: multiple pockets and a push-to-talk button.
In terms of appearance, the UA x VG space suit is a mix of deep space and light blue with elements of gold, symbolizing the sun in space. The Virgin Galactic symbols are located along the spine and represent the unity of the suit with the mission. Further graphics on the sock liner state “We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants,’’ a quote by Sir Isaac Newton.
Footwear and apparel, however, are not the only areas with thriving cosmic creativity: Luggage brand Horzin Studios has teamed up with Alyssa Carson, the world’s youngest astronaut, to ‘address the needs of the next generation travel – to space’
Their Space suitcases are assembled of smart materials like Graphene-enhanced carbon fiber structure, ensuring durability, flexibility and lightness and an electromagnetic base, which allows the suitcase to secure to the floor or walls of the spacecraft during zero gravity.
Further features include a graphene inductive charging field, which allow for highly efficient energy storage and wireless charging of electronic devices and an in-built smart screen for communication.
Biometric security allows finger recognition and a vacuum function enables maximum storage efficiency, whereas a silver-ion enhanced compartment provides a bacteriostatic function, neutralizes germs and odor.
Of the collaboration Alyssa Carson says: “My generation is closer than ever to space travel, and I’ve been dreaming of becoming an astronaut since I was three years old. I loved working on something that would inspire the next generation of travellers to push their boundaries.”
Regardless of the success of all these projects, the amounts of research put into each of them could be readily applied to various sectors of the sportswear industry for endurance styles and adaptation to multiple environmental requirements.
For example, the performance aspect of the space suits is very much focused on lightweight materials, durability and thermal regulation, as well as comfort. Those and the innovation in graphene and carbon fibers will be a main drive for the future of active and protective, and why not everyday apparel. After all, microgravity is already a new testing environment.
The new fibers are to be used in not only outerwear, but also base layers and accessories, workwear, cycling, and motorsports. Product and apparel design will extend beyond the confinements of our home planet’s atmosphere.
WGSN; Airspace Magazine; FastCompany.com; Mirror UK; Futur 404; Fashion United; UnderArmour.com; Horizin Studios.com; Modelling and Design of a Bio-Suit Donning System: Allison Anderson, James Waldie, Dava Newman, Man Vehicle Lab, Massaschusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA;
Space Suit – An Ultimate Protection: Mr. Tanveer Malik and Mr. T. K. Sinha, Department of Textile Technology, Shri Vaishnav Institute of Technology and Science; July 2018;
High Performance Textiles in Space Suit: A. Feyza Arslan, Nuray Oz Ceviz, S. Muge Yukseloglu; Marmara University, Institute of Pure and Applied Sciences, Istanbul, April 2018;
Modeling and Design of a BioSuit™ Donning System, Allison Anderson*, James Waldie†, and Dava Newman‡, Man Vehicle Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139