Space X Vs NASA: Spacesuits | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
Space travel has entered a new age... with SpaceX and NASA leading the way! in this video, Unveiled compares and contrasts one of the most important aspects to any space flight; the spacesuit! While NASA has stuck with its traditional "pumpkin orange" design for the Artemis Program, SpaceX has revolutionised the way that astronauts look - turning them into superheroes!

SpaceX Vs NASA: Spacesuits

Spacesuits are the most important bit of kit for astronauts. They’re crucial, complex pieces of technology that are designed to save lives in the emptiness of space. 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.

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 Artemis Program.

The Artemis Program is NASA’s latest initiative to kickstart US spaceflight, aiming to put the first woman and the next man onto the moon. 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 moon. 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 colonies.

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 style, however. 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 visor. 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 touchscreen only. 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, as well. 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 vehicle itself. 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 is changing. 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. Literally.