Science Spacebound First Look

Next-gen spacesuit: Boeing unveils astro-hoodie with touchscreen gloves

Boeing's next generation spacesuit features numerous improvements to safety and comfort, bringing astronautics into the 21st-century.

Astronaut is probably the last job anyone could call uncool, but Boeing is trying to make it stylish too.

The aerospace company unveiled its vision of astro-fashion this week, a new spacesuit to complement its upcoming Starliner space taxi. Replacing the iconic orange "pumpkin" flight suits of the space shuttle era, the sleeker, lighter "Boeing blue" suits feature a number of upgrades improving safety and convenience. The company hopes to begin bringing Earthlings to the International Space Station in late 2018.

Nowhere is the "less is more" design philosophy more true than flight suit development. Astronauts spend hours sitting in the cockpit during and after takeoff, and need to be constantly ready to spring into action in case something goes wrong. Any excess bulk restricts their ability to respond.

"The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive," astronaut Eric Boe said in a statement from NASA. "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 new suits facilitate that readiness with a number of simplifications over the last generation pumpkin suits. At 30 to 60 percent lighter, depending on accessories, the sleeker outfit allows astronauts considerably more freedom. Updated shoulder cuffs provide additional flexibility, even when pressurized.

Developers hope, however, that like a backup parachute such features will never be fully put to the test. "The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft's redundant life support systems," said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits of 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."

Despite being hailed as a space suit, Boeing blue shares more DNA with the flight suits worn by high-altitude pilots than the iconic white extravehicular mobility units used for spacewalks, Wired reports. While those mini-spacecraft have to regularly provide extended life support as well as the ability to get around while shielding astronauts from radiation, the new suits are intended only to get astronauts through a pinch, as revealed by their Apollo-era nickname, the "get me down quick suit."

In addition to a simplified design, the new suit sports various technical upgrades as well. Reebok upgraded built-in booties, and the old bowl-shaped helmet has been replaced with a soft hoodie made from the same knitted nylon as the rest of the suit. Tablet and smartphone friendly gloves will allow astronauts to operate the touchscreen controls that have replaced many of the switches and dials of yore.

NASA retired the space shuttle program in 2011, after which America has relied exclusively on the Russian Soyuz capsule to access the International Space Station. To end this dependence on foreign toil, NASA has signed contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to develop the capacity to get astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit.

Like the Starliner, the SpaceX's Dragon development has taken longer than expected, but the aeronautics newcomer hopes to start flights in 2018, two years before the date Russia has threatened to stop shuttling Americans to the ISS. SpaceX's own space suit is also under development and is expected to have a similarly heroic look.

Despite America's manned space program reboot getting off to a slow start, former astronaut and current director of crew and mission systems for Boeing, Chris Ferguson says he is glad things are finally taking off.

"We slogged through some of the real engineering challenges and now we are getting to the point where those challenges are largely behind us and it's time to get on to the rubber meeting the road," Mr. Ferguson said.

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