NASA-SpaceX Demo-2 mission: What is special about the ‘Starman suits’

NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight, supposed to lift off for the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday – the first crewed flight to launch from American soil since the conclusion of the space shuttle era in 2011 – has now been rescheduled for May 31, due to weather conditions.

One of the main objectives of NASA’s commercial crew program is to make space more accessible, in a way that crew and cargo can be transported to and from the ISS easily. Through this program, NASA plans to lower its costs by sharing them with commercial partners such as Boeing and SpaceX, and also gives the companies the incentive to design and build the Commercial Orbital Transportation Servcies (COTS).

Apart from the test flight itself, what’s getting attention are the spacesuits that the astronauts will wear while travelling in the SpaceX capsule, called Crew Dragon.

What is unique about the SpaceX spacesuit?
The so-called “Starman suits” the astronauts will wear on the Demo-2 mission have been designed by Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez, who has worked on costumes for films including Batman versus Superman, The Fantastic Four and The Avengers among others.

In August 2019, SpaceX held a training event in Hawthorne, California, where Behnken and Hurley performed pre-launch operations connected to the Demo-2 mission, including performing suit-up procedures alongside the SpaceX team.

The SpaceX spacesuits are different from other spacesuits typically worn by astronauts because of their sleek design, and are being described as resembling a tuxedo. “Actually, what the SpaceX suits evoke most of all is James Bond’s tuxedo if it were redesigned by Tony Stark as an upgrade for James T. Kirk’s next big adventure. Streamlined, graphic and articulated, the suits are more a part of the pop-culture-Comic-Con continuum of space style than the NASA continuum,” a report published in The New York Times said.

Fernandez was hired by SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk in 2016. After Fernandez presented the prototype designs for the SpaceX suits, they were worked on by spacesuit engineers to make them functional for flight. As per a BBC report, the helmets of these suits are 3D printed with touchscreen-sensitive gloves and the suit is all in one piece, customised for the wearer.

For astronauts aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, the company unveiled its cobalt blue spacesuit designs in 2017. These spacesuits are meant to be lighter and more flexible, are equipped with touchscreen gloves, have vents that allow astronauts to be cooler while maintaining pressure inside the suit, and have an incorporated helmet and visor.

How are launch-and-entry spacesuits different from EMUs?
The SpaceX suits are only meant to be worn inside the space shuttle, and are not suitable for carrying out spacewalks. Spacesuits for spacewalks, called Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), are heavier than launch-entry suits (LES) and are already present aboard the ISS.

While inside the spacecraft, the atmosphere can be controlled, to explore and work in space, humans require that “they take their environment with them because there is atmospheric pressure and no oxygen to sustain life”, as NASA puts it. Such spacesuits – EMUs — are worn for spacewalks or extravehicular activities (EVA) conducted outside a space shuttle.

These provide astronauts with oxygen supply and protect them against extreme temperatures (in Earth’s orbit temperatures can vary between -250 F and 250 F in the sunlight), radiation and space dust.

During ascent or descent, astronauts wear partially pressurised suits referred to as LES, which protect them against loss of cabin pressure. For instance, if the cabin pressure is too low, the blood tends to pool in the lower body, causing astronauts to blackout. These suits have a helmet, gloves and boots that serve to protect the astronaut. Further, according to NASA, inside the shuttle in orbit, astronauts wear comfortable clothes such as knit shirts, pants or flight suits.

One launch and entry suit designed by NASA includes the Orion suit, designed for astronauts who will be a part of the Artemis missions to the moon. These suits are bright orange, to make the crew easily recognisable in the ocean if they exit the Orion spacecraft in case of an emergency. The spacesuits are a re-engineered version of the so-called “pumpkin suits”, formally called the Advanced Crew Escape Space Suit System (ACES), which were used till the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011.

Modifications to the ACES include a lighter, stronger helmet, which comes in more than one size and makes communications with other crew members easier, has better fire resistance, improved thermal management and a reengineered zip for easier donning and doffing.