One of my (many) favorite scenes from The Martian is when Mark is leaving the hab for the final time. After signing his name on his makeshift calendar, he strolls to the airlock. He doesn’t make it far before he remembers he forgot something. His helmet. For astronauts hitching a ride with Boeing, that won’t be a problem.
This week, Boeing unveiled their vision for the future of spacesuits. They don’t look as sleek as the suits in The Martian, but it looks like a big improvement over what astronauts wear right now. Let’s take a look.
You can see how the helmet and visor are incorporated into the suit itself. They’re not detachable.
Boeing paid close to attention to making their new suit as lightweight and flexible as possible. That means using more advanced material to give astronauts more range of motion. Zippers located in certain spots let the wearer make changes to the suit to make it more comfortable when sitting or standing.
Touchscreen-sensitive gloves were a must as the toggles and switches of old give way to touchscreen displays.
Here’s a short clip of astronauts using a simulator for the Boeing Starliner.
The whole suit, which includes integrated shoes, weighs about 20 pounds. Seems heavy, but it’s nearly 10 pounds lighter than the current suits worn during launch and entry. These slick suits won’t replace the ones astronauts use to walk into space, but they should make the ride to and from the final frontier a little more comfortable.
It would have been easy for Boeing to pack in tons of bells and whistles with their new suit, but they kept it simple. And astronauts like Eric Boe appreciate the simplicity. “The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” said Boe. “It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”
The form-fitting suits don’t sacrifice safety. While vents can keep astronauts cooler during the cramped trip to and from the ISS, the suit can still pressurize in an instant.
The odds of astronauts needing their suits to pressurize is small explains Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”
Space fans like us have been waiting a long time to see what private companies have cooked up for getting U.S. astronauts into space. We’ve seen the ships from Boeing and SpaceX. This week, we get a good look at their new duds. It finally feels like everything’s coming together. The days of NASA hitch-hiking aboard Soyuz capsules will soon end.
“The next time we pull all this together, it might be when astronauts are climbing into the actual spacecraft,” said Chris Ferguson, a former astronaut and current director of Crew and Mission Systems for Boeing.
As for SpaceX? We know they’re making their own spacesuits. We know they’re probably going to look badass too. Costume designer Jose Fernandez (he designed costumes for Batman v Superman, Oblivion, Iron Man, Tron: Legacy and more) helped Elon Musk come up with SpaceX’s spacesuit.
With Boeing revealing their new spacesuits this week, maybe SpaceX isn’t too far behind.