When astronauts and cosmonauts first went up into space, every move they made was front-page news. As a result, the suits worn into space have been among the most iconic pieces of travel attire over the past 50 years. From the glimmering silver suit worn by Alan Shepard to the orange “pumpkin” suits worn in the days of the space shuttle, safety always beats style.
Boeing has introduced a sleeker suit to bring sexy back to the International Space Station.
The brilliant blue coloured suit is designed for intra-vehicular activity. Gone is the “fishbowl helmet in favour of a hoodie secured with a pressurized zipper,” according to a recent Wired article. Bulky gloves are gone in favour of touchscreen-compatible ones. And the shoes worn while on the ISS? They’re from Reebok.
In his new book, Nicholas de Monchaux examines the fashion of space. He looks back on the early suits and ponders what new technology and fabrics might be able to do going forward.
“The new Constellation suit that Boeing unveiled is actually made by the very same company that made the Gemini spacesuit,” he tells Alan Cross and Michael Hainsworth. “It is a design which, at least underneath the sleek exterior, is pretty much unchanged from the 1960s.”
The suit is one that would be worn by travelers on the way to and from space, designed to support air pressure. It doesn’t fully protect from obstacles astronauts might encounter in space, nor does it protect from radiation.
The More Things Change…
Another holdover from the early days of space travel? The involvement of Playtex.
“The Apollo space suit and the current suits on the ISS are made by a company which started out as a very small division of the same company that made Playtex bras and girdles,” de Monchaux says. Len Shepherd, the chief scientist on the suit at the time, “started his career as the TV repairman of Playtex’s founder.”
The Apollo suit used the same latex used in girdles and the material and straps used in bras, he adds. Those materials “let the Apollo spacesuit bend at all of its joints without changing in volume or needing to increase or decrease in pressure.”
NASA and the “amazingly skilled female workers” at Playtex who made the suits did agree to a few compromises. The women didn’t want to have a different serial number for each part of the suit. NASA agreed to use conventional small, medium and large sizes.
With one exception.
…The More They Stay The Same
The vast majority of astronauts were men. Women weren’t allowed. Suits were designed with male bodies in mind as a result.
The only part of the suit not designated small, medium or large, is the urinary collection device.
“After what was only described to me as an incident with the first astronaut they fitted, (which) was sized as a large, extra large and extra, extra large,” de Monchaux laughs. “Completely true story.”
The full interview on S05E01 Space: The Stylish Frontier on The Geeks & Beats Podcast