NASA Asks: Which Spacesuit Prototype Do You Prefer? Vote On Your Favorite

Three models of NASA's Z-2 suit unveiled to the public in March 2014 for people to vote on their favorite design. From left, "Biomimicry", "Technology" and "Trends In Society." Click for a larger version. Credit: NASA (Photo combination: Elizabeth Howell)

If you ever wanted to participate in spacesuit design, even in a small way, here’s your big chance. NASA is asking the public to choose which design of the futuristic Z-2 “planetary mobility” suit prototype will be used by astronauts while evaluating how well the spacesuit works.

There are three options (which you can see above), and NASA promises the winning design will be used in pool training at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, the Johnson Space Center “rockyard” to simulate Mars exploration, and in vacuum tests. Outer space is not an option because of “micrometeorite, thermal and radiation protection” considerations, however.

In NASA’s words, here’s a quick summary of the prototypes:

  • Biomimicry: The “Biomimicry” design draws from an environment with many parallels to the harshness of space: the world’s oceans. Mirroring the bioluminescent qualities of aquatic creatures found at incredible depths, and the scaly skin of fish and reptiles found across the globe, this design reflects the qualities that protect some of Earth’s toughest creatures.
  • Technology: “Technology” pays homage to spacesuit achievements of the past while incorporating subtle elements of the future. By using Luminex wire and light-emitting patches, this design puts a new spin on spacewalking standards such as ways to identify crew members.
  • Trends In Society: “Trends in Society” is based off of just that: being reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future. This suit uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.

The Z-2 includes several improvements over its Z-1 predecessor, which won an invention award from Time magazine in 2012. These include a “hard composite” upper torso that is intended to be more durable, better shoulder and hip joints, and boots that would be more useful on a planet.

To follow developments on the suit in detail, you can check out this page. Voting on the spacesuit designs closes at April 15, 2014 at 11:59 EDT. This is where you can vote.

Other collaborators on the design include ILC (the primary suit vendor) and Philadelphia University.

Savage Spacesuit: ‘Mythbusters’ Host’s Mercury Costume Looks Real Enough For Space

Mythbusters' Adam Savage shows off a Mercury replica spacesuit in February 2014. Credit: Tested/YouTube (screenshot)

Who wants Adam Savage’s job right now? The cohost of Mythbusters spent the last year working with a San Francisco Bay-area costume designer to come up with this remarkable Mercury spacesuit. While it’s not a faithful replica of any one mission — it’s more a blend of greatest hits from the designs of several — it really looks like Savage could step into a spacecraft at any moment.

“The whole point of the Mercury program … was to figure out how to safely get people into space and what would happen to them,” Savage says in a new video, which you can see below.

“So every single time they came down from a Mercury mission they [the astronauts] would talk to the engineers and spend weeks in meetings going ‘Okay, I couldn’t move my arm this way. I couldn’t hit this switch in this way. I couldn’t turn my head.”

As if that isn’t cool enough, Savage also is sporting an Apollo flight jacket replica that is advertised as being pretty darn close to the original. Check out Adam Savage’s Tested blog for amazing photos as well as a more complete video (for premium members.)

Mercury was the first American spaceflight program, and had six flights between 1961 and 1963. For more information about the Mercury spacesuit, check out this chapter from NASA book “This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury“. You can also see a photo gallery of different Mercury suits.

Coincidentally, there’s a travelling exhibit on about the history of spacesuits, which Universe Today’s David Dickinson wrote about last week.

Mythbusters' Adam Savage (left) in front of a replica Mercury spacesuit. Credit: Tested/YouTube (screenshot)
Mythbusters’ Adam Savage (left) in front of a replica Mercury spacesuit. Credit: Tested/YouTube (screenshot)
A close-up of a Mercury replica spacesuit ordered by Mythbusters' Adam Savage. Credit: Tested/YouTube (screenshot)
A close-up of a Mercury replica spacesuit ordered by Mythbusters’ Adam Savage. Credit: Tested/YouTube (screenshot)

What to Wear? The History and Future of Spacesuits


The issue of “what to wear?” takes on an extra dimension of life and death when it comes to space travel. Upon exiting a spacecraft on a spacewalk, an astronaut becomes his very own personal satellite in orbit about the Earth and must rely on the flimsy layer of his suit to provide them with a small degree of protection from radiation and extreme fluctuations of heat and cold.

We recently had a chance to see the past, present and future of space suit technology in the Smithsonian Institutions’ touring Suited for Space exhibit currently on display at the Tampa Bay History Center in Tampa, Florida.

Tampa Bay History Center Director of Marketing Manny Leto recently gave Universe Today an exclusive look at the traveling display. If you think you know space suits, Suited for Space will show you otherwise, as well as give you a unique perspective on a familiar but often overlooked and essential piece of space hardware. And heck, it’s just plain fascinating to see the design and development of some of these earlier suits as well as videos and stills of astronauts at work – and yes, sometimes even at play – in them.

One of the highlights of the exhibit are some unique x-ray images of iconic suits from space travel history. Familiar suits become new again in these images by Smithsonian photographer Mark Avino, which includes a penetrating view of Neil Armstrong’s space suit that he wore on Apollo 11.

X-ray images of Neil Armstrong’s historic suit on display in Suited for Space. (Photo by author).

Space suits evolved from pressure suits developed for high-altitude flights in the 1950’s, and Suited for Space traces that progression. It was particularly interesting to see the depiction of Wiley Post’s 1934 suit, complete with steel cylindrical helmet and glass portal! Such early suits resembled diving bell suits of yore — think Captain Nemo in a chemsuit. Still, this antiquated contraption was the first practical full pressure suit that functioned successfully at over 13,000 metres altitude.

Wiley Post’s 1934 “rubber bladder suit.” (Photo by author).

No suit that has been into space is allowed to tour due to the fragility of many historic originals that are now kept at the Smithsonian, though several authentic suits used in training during the U.S. space program are on display. We thought it was  interesting to note how the evolution of the spacesuit closely followed the development of composites and materials through the mid-20th century. You can see the progression from canvas, glass and steel in the early suits right up though the advent of the age of plastic and modern fabrics. Designs have flirted with the idea of rigid and semi-rigid suits before settling on the modern day familiar white astronaut suit.

A x-ray photo of an EX-1A spacesuit. (Photo by author).

Spacesuit technology has also always faced the ultimate challenge of protecting an astronaut from the rigors of space during Extra-Vehicular Activity, or EVA.

Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov performed the first 12 minute space walk during Voskhod 2 back in 1965, and NASA astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space on Gemini 4 just months later. Both space walkers had issues with over-heating, and White nearly didn’t make it back into his Gemini capsule.

Early evolution of space suits on display at the Suited for Space exhibit. (Photo by author).

Designing a proper spacesuit was a major challenge that had to be overcome. In 1962, Playtex (yes THAT Playtex) was awarded a contract to develop the suits that astronauts would wear on the Moon. Said suits had 13 distinct layers and weighed 35 kilograms here on Earth. The Playtex industrial division eventually became known as the International Latex Corporation or ILC Dover, which still makes spacesuits for ISS crewmembers today. It’s also fascinating to see some of the alternate suits proposed, including one “bubble suit” with arms and legs (!) that was actually tested but, thankfully, was never used.

These suits were used by astronauts on the Moon, to repair Hubble, build the International Space Station and much more. Al Worden recounts performing the “most distant EVA ever” on the return from the Moon in his book Falling to Earth. This record will still stand until the proposed asteroid retrieval mission in the coming decade, which will see astronauts performing the first EVA ever in orbit around Earth’s Moon.

An A5-L Spacesuit. Credit: Smithsonian/Suited for Space.

And working in a modern spacesuit during an EVA is anything but routine. CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield said in his recent book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth that “Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine and performing an intricate pas de deux – simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckle, fingertips and collarbone raw.”

And one only has to look at the recent drama that cut ESA astronaut Luca Parmitamo’s EVA short last year to realize that your spacesuit is the only thin barrier that exists between yourself and the perils of space.

“We’re delighted to host our first Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service (SITES) and we think that Florida’s close ties to NASA and the space program make it a great fit for us,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, the Tampa Bay History Center’s Saunders Foundation Curator of History.

Be sure to catch this fascinating exhibit coming to a city near you!

-And you can see these suits in action on the up and coming future EVAs for 2014.

-Here’s the schedule for Suited for Space Exhibit tour.

-Astronaut Nicole Stott (veteran of STS-128, -129, -133, & ISS Expeditions 20 and 21) will also be on hand at the Tampa Bay History Center on March 2014 (Date to be Announced) to present Suited for Space: An Astronaut’s View.

– Follow the Tampa Bay History Museum of Twitter as @TampaBayHistory.


The Perils of Wearing a Spacesuit

Scott Altman, in front of a portait presented to him by the Lakeview Museum in Peoria, IL and painted by artist Bill Hardin. Photo: N. Atkinson


A spacesuit is a complicated conglomeration of switches, dials, hoses, tabs, and multiple layers of high-tech material. It serves various functions and is part miniature spacecraft, part atmospheric re-creation, and part medical necessity — with the number one priority of protecting those who wear it. But that doesn’t mean a spacesuit is always comfortable. “The whole suit is like a big bladder and it weighs about 80 lbs,” said astronaut Scott Altman, explaining the intricacies of the orange ACES launch and entry space suit to a group of children, “and it’s not always easy to move around in it.” But, undoubtedly today’s suit is more advanced and slightly more comfortable than the spacesuit Altman’s STS-125 crewmate, John Grunsfeld assembled as a child, concocted from vacuum cleaner parts and ice cream tins.

Altman was visiting the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, IL, a facility he visited often while growing up. The museum presented him with a portrait painted by local artist and businessman Bill Hardin, a detailed depiction of Altman wearing the ACES suit, and Altman was asked to explain the various parts of the space suit to the children (and very interested adults) in attendance.

The Advanced Crew Escape Suit, or ACES, is currently worn by all space shuttle crews for the ascent and entry portions of flight.

Scott Altman at the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, IL. Photo: N. Atkinson
Scott Altman at the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences in Peoria, IL. Photo: N. Atkinson

“It’s a full-pressure suit,” Altman explained, “and the idea is if you are in the space shuttle and the spacecraft loses pressure, the suit will inflate because your body needs pressure on it so you can keep breathing and it will provide you with oxygen to breathe as well.”

The gloves and helmet are attached to the suit with locking metal rings. Altman said the neck can get a little uncomfortable because it has a “seal” that can get quite tight at the neck. “But it has some tabs we can pull on to bring the seal away from our necks when are walking around in the suit before you get on the space shuttle,” he said “which is nice because otherwise it is difficult to turn your head!”

Then Altman described the helmet. “It fits in and slides into the latches on the metal ring,” he explained. “The funny thing is that most helmets I’ve worn, when you turn your head the helmet turns with you. But in this helmet, you turn your head and you end up looking at the inside of the helmet. You actually have to turn the helmet manually with your hands by grabbing hold of the front of it and moving everything together.”

Altman and his crewmates on the flight deck of the shuttle during the STS-125 mission.  Note all the switches up above the heads of the astronauts. Credit: NASA
Altman and his crewmates on the flight deck of the shuttle during the STS-125 mission. Note all the switches up above the heads of the astronauts. Credit: NASA

Another thing about the helmet is that wearing it makes it hard to see up above your head. What makes this interesting for Altman is that he is the shuttle commander, flying the spacecraft as the lead pilot. The shuttle has over 450 separate switches and buttons in the cockpit, not counting all the circuit breakers that can be pulled out. Some of them are located — you guessed it – up above the commander’s head.

Click here for a high resolution look at the inside of the space shuttle flight deck.

“We are strapped in our seats very tight, and with the helmet on it is really hard to look up,” Altman said. “You can’t lean back very well in the seats, so to look up at all the switches up high, you kind of have to bend over and twist and turn your head, and turn the helmet. So it makes life a little more difficult.”

One child asked about the big zipper-like contraption on the front of the suit.

“When you’re standing up in the suit everything fits pretty well,” Altman said, “but imagine when you are sitting down the bottom of the suit rises up and everything else moves up, too. Then, when the suit starts to inflate the whole thing starts to rise up so pretty soon you find yourself looking at the bottom edge of the inside of the helmet and you can’t see. So this is a pulley system that allows you to tighten up the suit so it doesn’t go up over your head. These are all-important safety measures!”

Scott Altman cuts a space shuttle cake at the Lakeview Museum in Peoria, IL.  Photo: N. Atkinson
Scott Altman cuts a space shuttle cake at the Lakeview Museum in Peoria, IL. Photo: N. Atkinson

Altman used several acronyms to describe the different parts on the suit, saying NASA loves to make up new acronyms for everything. “We fly laptops in space to use but we don’t just call them laptops,” he said. “We call them PGSC’s and I don’t even know what that stands for!” (Payload and General Support Computer)

Later, Altman answered questions submitted by children about what he has seen on his space travels, how to eat and shower in space, and of course, how to go to the bathroom in space.