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From Issue #52 September 25, 2014

The Suit Fits

For the snappily dressed space person who needs an outfit on the go.

By Theresa Everline

Private entrepreneurs want to send you and me out beyond the Earth’s orbit. XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic say they expect to begin suborbital flights to altitudes just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere next year. Which brings up the eternal question: what to wear?

The old-fashioned space suit, the one burned into our retinas as part of the collective media unconsciousness most of us have absorbed since birth or over nearly 50 years, is on the road to substantial change. It’s been a long time coming because of the peculiar combination of utility, appearance, and reliability in the older suits.

It’s not very fashion forward, to be sure. A space suit makes the wearer look like a cross between a military fighter and a grasshopper, and it needs to provide protection from an onslaught of unusually nasty elements: 250°F heat, the absence of air pressure, micrometeoroids whizzing by.

At its core, a space suit sustains life, and if a “wardrobe malfunction” occurs the outcome can be lethal: in 2013 during a walk outside the International Space Station, an Italian astronaut’s suit began leaking (probably from the liquid cooling system in the underwear) and he almost drowned inside it.

A space suit — or, more specifically, the interior rubberized pressure garment — fits into another category as well: it’s a weapon, according to the US Department of State under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which restricts the export of not just the suits but data about the suits. For Ted Southern, that’s “very problematic. It’s an unfortunate ripple that has restricted some of our business.”

As president of Final Frontier Design, a Brooklyn-based space suit design company, Southern’s job involves arcane details of technology, law, and design. On August 28, Southern announced a new offering at Final Frontier Design: the “Space Suit Experience,” where any US citizen can pay $395 to play around in a pressurized model.

Although intended to create a minor public-relations ripple for the company, the Space Suit Experience underlines the revived trendiness and flamboyance of space travel. A new generation of suits will be made to fit private and public astronauts.

Highly pneumatic

Fittingly, and amusingly, the stunt pilot who first developed a pressurized suit so he could fly at higher altitudes was named Wiley Post, and he wears an eye patch and a sly grin in the photograph of him hanging at the start of Suited for Space, a traveling Smithsonian exhibition currently on view at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. In 1934, B.F. Goodrich Co. created a suit for Post, with boots laced up like a dominatrix’s and a helmet shaped like a massive aluminum can.

All the suits since Post’s still follow the basic makeup: an inner rubberized layer that holds in the air, and an outer layer that serves to, among other things, keep the pressure layer tight so it doesn’t inflate into a huge balloon. By the 1950s the suits had become much more flexible: a video at Suited for Space shows two guys in space suits, sans helmets, tossing a football. In the mid-1960s, the garments for Project Gemini had to be sturdy enough for working outside a spacecraft. As a result, they weren’t constructed for convenience: an astronaut had to lie on the floor and slide into the suit, then be helped to his feet.

Including up to 26 layers of insulation, the Apollo suits for the moonwalk weighed more than 56 pounds. To reduce the capsule’s weight on the return flight, many of the overshoes and extra-vehicular helmets were left on the moon.

Even if those pieces had been brought back to Earth, you wouldn’t be able to see them. Suited for Space includes no real space suits, just replicas, a lot of life-size photographs, and one neat display of X-rays. The exhibition’s text calls space suits “surprisingly fragile.” Ultraviolet light, humidity, heat, and the pure oxygen environment break down the garment’s manmade elements quickly. “They have to be about use and functionality and not necessarily archivalness,” Southern says.

Donning civvies

In the mid-1960s, NASA tested a version of a suit with an oversized arm and helmet. “There are some advantages to that,” Southern explains. “You can eat lunch inside, you can have a pressure lock, you can scratch your nose. But they didn’t end up choosing those designs, I think partially because they really wanted something that looked like a humanoid for the critical images on the moon.” After the first two moon landings, NASA added stripes to the commanders’ suits so that people watching from home could differentiate the men.

“We were given very, very specific technical information: fittings, connections, materials that would allow for function,” says Celia Frank, a professor emeritus of fashion design at Philadelphia University who, along with an engineering professor, advised a group of students creating a space suit in collaboration with NASA and space suit manufacturer ILC Dover. But NASA also “wanted it to be a little more camera-friendly,” notes Frank.

Frank’s students designed three prototypes, and then NASA, to garner some publicity, held an online contest to get people to vote for their favorite. The winner, announced in May, includes a light-gray vest-like section that sports a turquoise Y and light-emitting patches. A Bloomberg Businessweek writer declared that the design had “flair” but that the bulky, Michelin Man appearance would be “unflattering on every body type.”

“My theory has been the closer you can get to the human form, the better looking the suit is going to be,” Southern says. In explaining what he doesn’t want his product to resemble, Southern points to NASA’s heritage. Anyone who’s seen The Right Stuff knows that the first people to be recruited as astronauts were Air Force jet test pilots. “We’re trying to not look like a military garment,” says Southern. “We don’t want combat boots, we don’t want this hard fiberglass combat helmet on top.” An almost minimalist model, design-wise, Final Frontier’s white suit looks like something a cross-country skier would wear.

By downplaying the military aura and adding turquoise accents, these new suits address the fact that at least some of the civilians who’ll be shooting off into outer space will be women. The prototypes designed by Frank’s students are of a modular construction that can adapt to a smaller frame. “In terms of functionality there’s not a lot of reason to distinguish between women and men,” Southern says, then brings up the most recent pop culture representation of space flight: “I will say that in Gravity they were able to sexify Sandra Bullock’s suit — they added some hips and made it a little more form-fitting than normal.”

Final Frontier Design’s Ted Southern poses in his suit.

Bespoke tailoring

“From the beginning, they had in mind the commercial aspect of the everyman who could go up in space,” says Frank of the guidelines she and her students received from ILC Dover, who outfitted the Apollo astronauts. But, of course, “everyman” can’t afford a ticket on a rocket ship. A seat on Virgin Galactic costs a quarter-million dollars. (Deposits are refundable!) The handful of civilians who’ve visited the International Space Station, led by billionaire Dennis Tito, paid about $20 million each for the privilege. Final Frontier Design’s suits cost about $65,000.

There’s another option for the budget-conscious: you could go the DIY route and construct your own space suit for about $2,000. That’s what Cameron Smith, an anthropology professor at Portland State University who has written several books about evolution, set out to do in 2008. He used a pie tin to make the metal ring connecting the helmet to the suit. His pressurized layer is an old diving suit, and Smith trash-picked a jumpsuit for the layer on top that keeps everything tight. He made trips to Ace Hardware for nylon straps and valves, and he sewed the thing himself. Tests so far indicate that the suit seems to work, and Smith has teamed up with Copenhagen Suborbitals to create suits for when they begin their flights.

If he were around today with his eye patch and adventure-seeking nature, Wiley Post would likely approve.

Museum photos by the author. Final Frontier Design photo courtesy of the company.

Theresa Everline is a Philadelphia freelance writer interested in arts, culture, and urban affairs. A former editor-in-chief of Philadelphia City Paper, she has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post's travel section, Next City, Preservation Online, and SmartPlanet.com. Her essay about living in Cairo was selected as a "notable essay" for The Best American Travel Writing 2005.

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