Spacesuits are the most important bit of kit
They’re crucial, complex pieces of technology
that are designed to save lives in the emptiness
NASA has long set the bar for what to wear
among the stars, but now SpaceX is rivalling
with new, sleek and futuristic designs.
This is Unveiled and today we’re comparing
the SpaceX and NASA Spacesuits.
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When it comes to astronaut apparel, it’s
been a long road to now.
The first spacesuits were based on pressure
suits worn by early pilots and balloonists
around the turn of the twentieth century.
These pioneering aviators had to brave the
thin atmosphere at high altitude, and what
they wore to do it shares many similarities
with contemporary astronaut clothing – including
an airtight setup and a helmet that can be
opened and closed.
The first actual spacesuit designed specifically
for (and used on) a spacewalk, though, was
worn by the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov,
at the height of the space race between the
US and the USSR in 1965.
But it was far from perfect.
When exposed to the vacuum of space for the
first time, Leonov’s suit inflated due to
a problem with his gloves.
As he was unable to re-enter his spacecraft
in that condition, Leonov was then forced
to depressurize his own suit, putting himself
at an extremely high risk of injury and death.
Thankfully, he did survive, and spacesuits
have improved immeasurably since then.
It’s not like it’s one suit for all jobs,
though… and what an astronaut wears to conduct
a spacewalk is very different to what they
have on for a launch, or a re-entry, or for
just chilling in a shuttle or on the ISS.
For spacewalks, NASA has essentially been
using variations of the same suit since the
early 1980s – known as the Extravehicular
Mobility Unit (or EMU).
But, while all of its suits have been tweaked
and perfected over the years, for a long time
there weren’t any major changes… that
was until in 2019, when NASA unveiled two
new designs, created specifically for the
The Artemis Program is NASA’s latest initiative
to kickstart US spaceflight, aiming to put
the first woman and the next man onto the
The suit designs that it has heralded are
the Orion Crew Survival System suit (or the
OCSS) and the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility
Unit (or the xEMU).
The OCSS is a closer fit in an eye-catching
orange, meant to be worn for launch and re-entry…
it’s orange mostly to make it easier to
locate astronauts should their return capsule
land in the sea.
Meanwhile the xEMU appears a bulkier and clunkier
design, but that’s because it’s built
for large-scale EVAs on the surface of the
It can withstand up to eight hours outside
and offers greater flexibility and safety
features than previous NASA EVA suits.
Which is important, because the Artemis Program
is not only aiming to put people back on the
moon, but also to keep them there – leading
a new effort to build moon bases and lunar
To look at, though, the latest NASA suits
appear a far cry from the much talked about
SpaceX designs, as worn by Douglas Hurley
and Robert Behnken for the historic Crew Dragon
Demo-2 launch, which took the NASA astronauts
to the ISS in May 2020.
These suits, nicknamed “Starman” suits,
are also designed for inside a spacecraft,
only, like the Orion suits… but SpaceX hasn’t
yet built an EVA option for outside the vehicle.
The Starman was specifically designed for
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reportedly wanted to
create a suit that looked heroic – to inspire
the kids of today.
And he accomplished this by hiring Jose Fernandez,
a Hollywood costume designer who has also
worked on sci-fi, superhero, blockbuster movies
like “Captain America: Civil War”, “Passengers”
and “X-Men: Apocalypse”.
The sleek one-piece sports an all-white design
with patches of gray and a striking, dark
NASA’s pumpkin orange colour – as seen with
the Orion suit – has become iconic, but the
SpaceX look is already revolutionising how
we imagine the astronauts of the future.
In fact, it looks so different to what we’ve
come to expect that Musk reportedly had to
reassure people that the suit did actually
work in a vacuum; that it wasn’t just style
over substance or safety!
It’s still quite a new product – first seen
in 2017 – so there aren’t many people who
have actually worn it… but Doug Hurley has
said that it’s different to anything before.
Nevertheless, with NASA’s xEMU in a class
of its own because it’s designed for EVAs,
the orange Orion suit and the all-white Starman
really share more in common than not – not
least because NASA and SpaceX actually worked
together to build the Starman uniform, once
it had been designed.
Both are custom tailored to fit each astronaut’s
individual body type, which is a major upgrade
from some previous NASA suits, which only
came in set sizes.
Both are meticulously designed to regulate
temperature, to avoid over-sweating and to
be fire resistant.
Both suits also include a significant improvement
in the form of touchscreen gloves – a must-have
for astronauts piloting the SpaceX Crew Dragon
capsule in particular, as its controls are
Both have microphones and speakers fitted
inside the helmet, too, so the astronaut doesn’t
need to wear anything extra for these – like
the so-called “Snoopy cap” of the past.
But the suits do differ on a number of characteristics,
And a lot of those differences are due to
the Starman being specifically designed for
use in SpaceX vehicles.
The SpaceX suit has a single umbilical line,
for example, which plugs directly from the
thigh area to the seats in the Crew Dragon
ship, delivering all the vital data and metrics
on the astronaut inside it, as well as communications.
Because many of the Starman features only
work with SpaceX hardware, it’s even been
said that the suit effectively serves as one
piece, or as an extension, of the overall
The astronauts and their ship are one.
By contrast, NASA’s Orion suit works more
independently of the shuttle – a crucial feature
throughout NASA’s history, as it has had
to use many different shuttles and vessels
(and suits) in the past.
In terms of comfort, both reportedly offer
major improvements on what came before, too.
Starman suits are made with Teflon and Nomex
so as to be both strong and flexible.
Meanwhile, the Orion suit is engineered to
feel lighter than previous suits, with an
innovative structure to disperse weight and
tension away from certain areas of the body.
Every NASA Orion suit also comes equipped
with survival gear in the form of things like
a locator beacon, a flashlight and a whistle,
mostly in case astronauts get lost on re-entry.
In comparison, the SpaceX suit doesn’t have
as many tools attached.
Not that there are any particular concerns
about the safety of the Starman, with the
fact that it is so at one with the ship being
cited as one reason why it actually feels
very reliable – from training through to launch.
In both the Orion suit and the Starman, then,
we can see how the future of space travel
But it’s probably with SpaceX that we see
the most immediately obvious innovations.
With one suit, Elon Musk’s company has changed
the way we even picture astronauts – turning
them into new look superheroes!
It remains to be seen what a SpaceX EVA suit
will look like but, given that Musk’s primary
goal is to reach the Red Planet, we can expect
it to be tailored to Mars.
For now, NASA still leads the way here, with
its xEMU suit, built for the moon… and if
SpaceX ever wants to spacewalk, then they
may look to the Artemis Program for guidance.
Until then, the world will just have to get
used to two lots of new-look launch attire
– and both offer out of this world style.
What do you think?
Is there anything we missed?
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Spacesuits are the most important bit of kit