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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Futuristic Space Suit For the Next Era of Spaceflight

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futuristic space suit

With NASA planning to get people back on the moon within this decade, and private companies talking about sending humans to Mars, new materials, designs and suits seem inevitable. The next era of spaceflight needs something better than hand-me-downs.

The astronauts in Danny Boyle’s 2007 film Sunshine wear suits made of golden metal. They’re not multi-purpose EVA suits but one-off outfits designed for a specific mission to the sun.

Moon

When humans finally set foot on the moon again (hopefully sometime in 2025 thanks to a not-so-secret mission called Artemis III), they’ll need shiny new spacesuits. This week, NASA and contractor Axiom Space unveiled a prototype for the suits astronauts will wear when they land on the moon, as well as at other points in the lunar orbit. These new Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Units, as they’re called, will be much more flexible than suits used in the past, and will be able to bend and twist at the waist like human joints, per NASA. They’ll also be able to handle the frigid temperatures of the moon’s permanently shadowed regions, and they should keep the chance of micrometeoroids piercing the suits at a mere one in 2,500.

The AxEMU’s designer, Axiom Space engineer Jim Stein, modeled the suit on stage this week, doing lateral lunges and squats to demonstrate the suit’s flexibility. While he was wearing a dark grey suit, the final versions astronauts will actually wear will be all white to reflect heat and keep them cool. They’ll be loaded with tools to help them survey the lunar surface and collect samples, as well as a portable life support system that will allow astronauts to live and work on the moon without returning to Earth for resupply.

It seems unlikely that Axiom will have the new suits ready for the actual moon landing in time, though the company is making rapid progress. They’ll be tested in a space-like environment next year, and NASA has plans to modify the AxEMU for Mars missions as well. After all, Mark Watney spent a lot of time in his on The Martian, which was based on a real-life plan to land people on the red planet.

Sunshine

If you’re watching any sci-fi movie that involves space travel, chances are that the characters wear some kind of futuristic looking suit. While some movies stick with the puffy white suits that we’re all familiar with, others take a bit more liberties and play with design and color.

One of the more unique looking space suits in recent memory comes from the 2007 Danny Boyle film, Sunshine. The movie centers around a group of astronauts who are sent on a dangerous mission to reboot the sun after it begins to die, throwing Earth into an ice age. The crew wears golden space suits that are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and it’s hard not to notice them when they’re on screen.

While this space suit may look like something from the future, it’s actually based on some real-world tech. NASA recently unveiled a new prototype design for lunar spacesuits in 2019, and it’s called the XEMU (pronounced “ex-emu”). The XEMU spacesuit has a number of features that would make it ideal for a trip to the moon. It has a liquid cooling garment that circulates water to keep the astronaut cool, a pressure garment that maintains a steady amount of internal pressure, and a thermal micrometeroid garment that protects against the heat of the sun and the tiny particles of space dust that whizz by at high speeds.

The XEMU spacesuit also has a number of other important features, including an integrated communication system and auto-navigation capability, and a heads-up display that provides the astronaut with a clear view of their surroundings. These features aren’t just for show, either; they’ll actually help to improve the astronauts’ experience on their missions.

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott’s pseudo-prequel to 1979’s Alien isn’t just another sci-fi horror flick, it also explores the origin of the terrifying creatures that first appeared in that film. The involvement of the likes of LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof and star of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace has only fueled the hype surrounding this movie.

Although the spacesuits used in this sci-fi drama were mostly computer generated, costume designer Marlene Stewart (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Alien) did have a hand in creating some of them. She worked with a team of pros to create a suit that would be both functional and futuristic. Her goal was to give Cruise’s character Jack Harper a more streamlined look that would make him appear more robotic and technologically oriented.

These suits aren’t the typical grunge-covered work suits used by NASA astronauts, but rather sleeker designs that resemble superhero outfits. They’re a lot more lightweight than actual spacesuits, which makes them better for action scenes. They also feature a number of useful features, including air circulation vents, control panels and life support.

One of the most impressive aspects of this film is its stunning set design, which includes a long hallway that’s home to these giant spacesuits. The suits are instantly recognizable as the kind worn by the Engineers in Prometheus, which is what fuels the speculation that this movie might be more than just a simple prequel.

While these spacesuits weren’t the most practical or realistic of all the ones seen in space movies, they certainly look cool. They were designed with a mixture of retro 60s futurism and the actual Advanced Crew Escape Suit that real NASA astronauts use during launches. The suits are even equipped with thrusters to keep them upright while walking in low gravity.

The Expanse

In the 23rd century, Solomon Epstein accidentally invents an Epstein drive, a spaceship propulsion system that allows faster travel between Earth and Mars. While the two planets teeter on the edge of war, a police detective investigates the disappearance of a crew member. The Expanse combines real science with high-flying action and politics to create one of the best sci-fi series on television.

The show takes place in a plausibly-realistic future where much of humanity lives and works throughout the solar system. As such, the characters on the show wear a variety of space suits. Some, like the ones worn by Sam Bell at his lunar mining facility, are designed for excursions out onto the moon or driving a rover. Others, such as the ones used by Martian military personnel, are heavily armored and meant to fight in a vacuum or on a hostile surface.

Unlike some sci-fi movies and TV shows, The Expanse’s space suits feel plausible and realistic. The suits don’t look like they’re ripped off from some action movie, and the helmets aren’t as big as you might expect to see on a space pilot.

It’s also nice that The Expanse doesn’t rely on technology that isn’t available in the real world. While some science fiction films rely on unrealistic weapons, such as laser guns, the show’s dogfights are fought with rail guns that seem far more grounded in reality.

While The Expanse has wrapped up its six seasons on Syfy and Amazon, fans can now explore the universe of the show in a new video game from Telltale. The Expanse: A Telltale Series stars Cara Gee as the police detective Camina Drummer, and lets players scavenge wrecked ships in zero gravity, battle pirates and more as they take on the Belters.

Star Trek: Discovery

The world of Star Trek has always taken a wild guess at what futuristic technology might look like in the 23rd and 24th centuries, but the franchise has also served as inspiration for technology that is already here. Tablets, for instance, are a regular part of Starfleet officers’ arsenal and the crew of Discovery would likely be well-equipped to handle any alien threats they might encounter with their medical suites and Starfleet-grade medbays.

One of the more interesting gadgets in Discovery’s arsenal is the crew’s advanced spacesuits, which are a lot less bulky and cumbersome than what we have today. Starfleet uniform designer Olatunde Osunsanmi tapped into real-world advancements in EVA (extravehicular activity) suits to create the Discovery spacesuits. These suits are lighter, have more flexibility, and come with a clear visor that can be switched between tinted and untinted depending on the environment.

A recurring struggle for engineers designing EVA suits is the balance between girth and maneuverability, as older versions of these suits could balloon up into an uncomfortable mass. Those days are long gone. Currently, NASA’s present-day EMUs—which are used by the astronauts who fly aboard the ISS and other missions—have evolved to be more flexible while still being airtight.

As we await a time when NASA’s commercial partners—including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner—can send people to the ISS on their own, the agency is also working on other projects that will further advance its astronauts’ capabilities in space. That includes developing a new type of EVA suit that’s even more light, flexible, and auto-piloted.

Gentle Giant worked with Discovery’s producers to secure original concept models, reference photos, and authentic production files to accurately recreate the spacesuit costume worn by Sonequa Martin-Green for their first Star Trek: Discovery Collector’s Gallery 1/8 scale statue. The result is a stunning collectible that shows off the details of her Discovery uniform and her thruster-equipped EVA suit. The figure is available now for pre-order with a release date set for August 2019. Display it alone or pair it with the in-scale Klingon Torchbearer statue to showcase your epic Star Trek collection.

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