The space suits worn by astronauts in Nasa’s Artemis program for the first time this decade and on future public or private crewed missions to Mars may look cool and futuristic, but they will also have to function flawlessly. These suits must provide astronauts with a liquid cooling garment, maintain proper pressure inside the suit, and shield them from tiny particles of micrometeoroid dust.
1. It’s light
When most people think of a space suit, they’ll probably picture the ones worn by astronauts on the International Space Station. But that’s not the spacesuit of the future. In fact, scientists are working on a new kind of spacesuit that’s even lighter and more flexible than suits that have gone before.
The next generation of spacesuits is called the xEMU, and they’re designed to allow astronauts to live and work on another planet—something that wouldn’t be possible with current suits. These new spacesuits are much lighter and more flexible than suits of the past, and they’re also designed with a higher factor of safety. They have multiple structural redundancies and are designed to last for many EVAs.
During a demonstration of the xEMU today, an Axiom Space employee wore a dark suit and demonstrated its flexibility by doing squats and twisting at the waist. The xEMU is designed to be as versatile as possible in order to meet the needs of different missions. For example, the xEMU has a lower waistline than current spacesuits, which allows astronauts to move more freely.
It’s important that a spacesuit be lightweight because the crew of a spaceship doesn’t carry very much gear on them—and a heavy suit would add to the weight. The xEMU is made of a material called Nomex, which is used in firefighting suits. It’s also made of carbon fiber, which is a common material for aerospace engineering and has been used on NASA missions before.
The next-generation spacesuits will also be smart, and they’ll include sensors to monitor the environment and the suit itself. These sensors will be able to process data and alert astronauts through voice or visual displays. Moreover, the sensors will be able to communicate with other spacesuits, which will help with navigation and a range of other tasks.
2. It’s flexible
For the last half-century, space suits have played a huge role in some of humanity’s most exciting and important achievements. The suits, which are worn by astronauts and other space explorers when venturing outside of their ship for extravehicular activities (EVA), must protect them from the harsh environment of outer space while also performing essential functions like providing pressurization. And while the iconic look of a space suit might seem simple at first glance, there is actually a lot that goes into making one functional—the perfect example of the old design adage, “form follows function.”
A new spacesuit prototype developed by Final Frontier Design (FFD) looks more like a skin-tight wrap than the stiff white suits NASA astronauts have been wearing since the days of Apollo. The Z-1 EVA suit is designed to be able to stretch with the movement of the astronaut. It is even able to “follow” an astronaut’s motion, which is helpful when trying to reach something in the back of a cabinet or a closet.
This flexible spacesuit is also able to reduce stress on astronauts and keep them safe from potential hazards like loss of pressure or abrasions when moving in tight spaces. And just as technology from spacesuits has influenced everything from burn treatment to car seat thermal regulation, the new suit’s flexible material could have spin-off applications in a number of industries.
The company behind the futuristic spacesuit—Axiom Space—has received a $228.5 million contract from NASA to produce the suit for the agency’s next moon landing, which is set to take place in 2025 as part of the Artemis program. The suits will provide greater flexibility and be available in a wider range of sizes than the current models. Axiom Space is also working on a private space station in low Earth orbit and a mission to Mars, which will require a different type of suit that can handle the extreme temperatures of the Martian surface.
3. It’s comfortable
Besides looking like something straight out of Star Wars, the SpaceX suit has some real-life practical benefits. It’s designed to keep astronauts cool, comfortable, and working in microgravity by circulating water to prevent overheating, maintaining internal pressure, and protecting against radiation and other harmful elements.
It’s also more flexible than current EVA suits, and is made out of high-tech materials to make it last longer. And instead of having to size each part of the suit for each astronaut, it can be adjusted at the shoulders and waist, so it can fit more people. It’s also easier to enter: astronauts will step into it from the back, with their feet and arms first, then insert their head last.
The space community has come a long way since the silvery, boxy suits of the past. But there’s still a lot of work to do to get humans to Mars and beyond. And the right spacesuit is an essential piece of that puzzle.
MIT engineer Dava Newman has been hard at work on her own futuristic spacesuit. It’s sleek and form-fitting, which is key in allowing astronauts to move more easily in harsh extraterrestrial environments. It also applies pressure directly to the skin, rather than through a balloon-like jumpsuit, which is more efficient. And it has smart structures that communicate with distributed sensors, providing instant feedback and alerting the wearer with voice or visual displays if something goes wrong. In addition, it can morph into different configurations depending on the environment. And it’s all based on the same materials we use to make teddy bears fly high above the earth in helium balloons. That’s a real-life test of how pliable our space suits will have to be.
4. It’s cool
If you’re going to explore space, you need the right gear. And the futuristic space suit isn’t just about functionality — it’s also about style. Unlike the puffy white suits in sci-fi movies that look more like Buzz Lightyear’s costume than something you’d wear outside of your spacecraft, the latest NASA astronaut suits are sleek and stylish. In fact, they’re designed to be as cool and comfortable as possible.
Virgin Galactic recently unveiled a collaboration with Under Armour to create the world’s first exclusive spacewear system for private astronauts. The suits, which are expected to cost $250,000 each, will be personalized for each astronaut. The goal is to give space tourists the “best possible experience,” which means a suit that feels like an extension of their own bodies and allows them to move freely in microgravity.
But this isn’t the first time a company has tried to make spacesuits cooler and more fashionable. In 1969, Stanley Kubrick’s space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey featured the futuristic spacesuit worn by Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). The suit was designed by British fashion designer Hardy Amies and was modeled after a series of prototypes. It had accordion pleating and fully functional buttons that opened and closed.
More recently, JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek reimagined the famous franchise with a fresh take on the costumes. The new suits stayed true to the original show, but they were slimmer and more sleek than the pumpkin suits in the old TV series. They also matched the crew’s shirts in color and were finished with clear space in their helmets.
5. It’s smart
As the world’s astronauts go farther and further from Earth, the spacesuits they wear will become increasingly important. A smart suit will monitor the wearer and their surroundings, sending data back to Earth or displaying information on screens inside the helmet. It will also be able to respond to the astronaut’s voice and eye movements. The suits being developed at Mines and other universities will have distributed wireless sensors that communicate with each other to provide instant information about the environment and the astronaut’s health.
While real-life spacesuits are still bulky and limiting to movement, a number of companies are developing sleeker and more functional spacesuits that follow the adage of “form follows function.” The dummy in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon suit, which flew on the company’s recent test flight and will carry astronauts on future missions, is a good example. It looks like a futuristic spacesuit, with LED lights on the shoulders that will help the crew members identify each other as well as display vital mission information.
The film industry has also been a strong source of inspiration for spacesuit designers. Some of the best examples are found in movies that portray a universe-exploring mission. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey features a manned voyage to Jupiter, and the spacesuits worn by Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) are simple in design but stand out with their bright orange color.
Another great example is the spacesuits worn by Tom Cruise in 2013’s Oblivion, which tells a story of a human crew fighting against an alien threat on a ravaged future planet. These suits are gray and lightweight compared to most modern spacesuits, and their simple, classic look is perfectly in tune with the sci-fi genre.