SpaceX collaborates with Hollywood designer on spacesuits: will they work?

The private space company tapped Jose Fernandez, who has worked on a variety of superhero movies, to create a concept for a '21st century spacesuit' that's now being reverse-engineered for use by astronauts.

If you’ve made batsuits for several generations of Batmen and robot suits for the Black Eyed Peas, what’s a logical next step? How about a real-life spacesuit for Space X, the private company run by Elon Musk.

Jose Fernandez, a veteran Hollywood costume designer and effects artist, got the call last year to help what Mr. Musk has called a “21st century spacesuit” that emphasizes looks as well as utility.

Current suit designs can vary widely in cost and function – NASA’s current Extravehicular Activity suit, which helps protect astronauts from radiation and extreme temperatures during spacewalks – costs a cool $12 million, while a suit designed to be worn during launches costs a relatively modest $180,000, reports Gizmodo.

Despite the variety of designs, aesthetic concerns tend to be a relatively low priority. But in a move that mirrors many of Musk’s efforts, including a spaceship that can dock itself autonomously and creating vintage-inspired Mars travel posters, SpaceX also intends to outfit its astronauts in suits that are fashionable in addition to functional.

“We are putting a lot of effort into design esthetics, not just utility. It needs to both look like a 21st century spacesuit and work well,” Musk said during a Reddit AskMeAnything session in 2015.

Mr. Fernandez, who told Bleep Magazine he originally only had two weeks to create a design, began by creating a helmet. He eventually worked with Musk for six months on the design, which SpaceX is now reverse-engineering to make it functional for spaceflight. The suit is expected to be released in the next few months.

“[Musk] kept saying, “Anyone looks better in a tux, no matter what size or shape they are,” and when people put this space suit on, he wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tux,” he told Bleep. “You look heroic in it. It’s an iconic thing be a part of.”

While it might seem somewhat over the top to hire a Hollywood costume designer who’s worked on a variety of superhero movies to create a real-life space suit, some of the limitations of Hollywood costumes also mirror real-life design issues for astronauts.

The polycarbonate helmet design for NASA’s Extravehicular Mobility Unit — an anthropomorphic space suit used on the International Space Station — for example, is “a bit like Michael Keaton’s Batman,” writes NASA flight instructor Robert Frost in a Quora post last year.

“His stiff cowl prevented him from turning his head, so he turned his body - except that we can avoid some of the body turning by making the helmet oversized so that the head can turn within it and then giving the visor as much field of view as possible,” Mr. Frost adds.

Navigating substantial gravity on Mars could also require additional changes to current space suit designs, which are focused on helping astronauts navigate in microgravity, such as on the Moon.

“When you're designing [only for] a planetary-surface walking configuration, it will be different," Amy Ross, lead of the advanced pressure-garment team at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston told last year. One key change would be to make the suits more flexible in the lower body to allow astronauts to pick up rocks and other samples from the surface of Mars.

While NASA is currently testing a variety of new designs, including some that place more of an emphasis on aesthetics, current designs still maintain the agency’s more utilitarian “Michelin man” aesthetic.

For one thing, making a suit that can fit astronauts of various sizes or shapes is a concern, in part to keep costs down, writes Mr. Frost of NASA.

“We don’t want to have to produce custom suits for every person, so the suit of the future should be designed such that it can easily be modified to fit the astronauts and cosmonauts,” he writes. “The spacesuit should be designed such that a neutral body posture requires no effort to maintain.”

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