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Going to Space in Style

Astronauts are heading to space in new, high-tech spacesuit designs!

NASA

An astronaut outside the International Space Station

For decades, astronauts have worn bright-orange flight suits as they strap in for liftoff. But a new suit design looks more like a sci-fi uniform you’d see on a TV show. The suit is royal blue and gold, and formfitting. It was designed by Under Armour for tourists to wear on trips to the edge of space. The first flights are set to launch later this year. Tickets are a whopping $250,000!

Passengers on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will get to wear this new flight suit, complete with a base layer, gloves, and boots. The thin knit base layer fabric helps regulate temperature and increase mobility, while the exterior fabric of the suit is fire resistant. It puts comfort first so that passengers can focus on enjoying the trip, not what they’re wearing, says Nick Cienski. He’s an apparel designer for Under Armour who worked on the suit.

“When people think about going to space, they immediately go to space movies,” says Cienski. His flight suit design for Virgin Galactic was inspired by sci-fi classics like Tron, as well as his experience as a costume designer for The Avengers. “I wanted these suits to have a certain percentage of drama—a super hero quality,” he says.

Astronauts wear special flight suits as they strap in for liftoff. For decades, these suits have been a distinctive bright orange. But a new suit design is coming—and it looks more like a sci-fi uniform you'd see on a TV show.

The suit is royal blue and gold, and fits astronauts’ bodies closely. It was designed by the company Under Armour for tourists to wear on trips to the edge of space. The first flights are set to launch later this year. Tickets are a whopping $250,000!

Passengers on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will get to wear this new flight suit. It comes complete with a base layer, gloves, and boots. The thin, flexible fabric of the base layer helps control the wearer’s temperature. The outer layer of the suit is fire-resistant in case something goes wrong. Nick Cienski is a designer for Under Armour who worked on the suit. His main concern was making it comfortable, he says. That way, passengers can focus on enjoying the trip.

"When people think about going to space, they immediately [think about] space movies," says Cienski. His flight suit design was inspired by classic sci-fi films like Tron. He also used his experience as a costume designer for The Avengers. "I wanted these suits to have a certain percentage of drama—a superhero quality," he says.

SUIT SCIENCE

There are two types of suits astronauts commonly wear: flight suits and spacesuits. Flight suits are sleeker and worn inside spacecraft for takeoffs and landings. Bulkier spacesuits are like wearable spacecraft to protect astronauts from unpredictable temperature swings, deadly solar radiation, and the airless vacuum of space, says Kavya Manyapu. She’s an aerospace engineer at Boeing’s Starliner program. The Starliner is a space capsule that will be used to take crews and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).

“Usually when we say spacesuits, we only think about the white, iconic suit that’s really big,” Manyapu says. That type of suit—called an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)—is used when astronauts leave the safety of their spacecraft, like during spacewalks to do repairs or perform experiments. These suits have complex life-support systems that create an Earth-like environment by providing oxygen and maintaining air pressure. Mini-fans even blow cool air so the astronauts don’t overheat.

Astronauts commonly wear two types of suits: flight suits and spacesuits. Flight suits are sleeker. Astronauts wear them inside a spacecraft during takeoffs and landings. Spacesuits are bulkier. They protect astronauts outside a spacecraft from extreme temperatures, deadly radiation, and the airless vacuum of space.

Kavya Manyapu is an engineer at Boeing's Starliner program. The Starliner is a space capsule that will take crews and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). "Usually when we say spacesuits, we only think about the white, iconic suit that's really big," says Manyapu.

That type of suit is called an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). It’s used when astronauts leave their spacecraft to perform experiments or do repairs. These suits have built-in features to keep astronauts alive. They provide oxygen to breathe and keep the air pressure at a similar level to Earth’s. Tiny fans even blow cool air so the astronauts don't overheat. 

Calla Kessler/The New York Times/Redux

The Virgin Galactic flight suit is for space tourists.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Cienski’s Hollywood-inspired design is a big change from flight suits of the past. The first human in space was Yuri Gagarin, a cosmonaut from the Soviet Union. In 1961, he wore a flight suit made of glued-together rubber sheets. A polyester covering held the suit’s shape and prevented the rubber from inflating like a balloon if the suit filled with air.

After that first success, engineers started thinking of different ways to protect astronauts in space. “There have been a lot of really fun and silly ideas that people threw around, like the hamster ball idea and a big can with a robotic arm,” says Allison Anderson, an aerospace biomedical engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Today, high-tech lightweight fabrics and new technologies that create airtight seams and bendable joints have revolutionized spacesuit maneuverability. “We have made so many advances in spacesuit technology since 1961,” says Shane McFarland, a spacesuit engineer for NASA.

Cienski's sci-fi design is a big change from flight suits of the past. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. He was a cosmonaut from the Soviet Union. He wore a flight suit made of rubber sheets stuck together with glue. A polyester covering held the suit in the right shape. It also kept the rubber from inflating like a balloon if the suit filled with air.

Gagarin’s flight suit was a success. After that, engineers starting thinking of different ways to protect astronauts in space. "There have been a lot of really fun and silly ideas that people threw around,” says Allison Anderson. She’s an engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “[There was a] hamster ball idea and a big can with a robotic arm," she says.

Today, suit designers can use high-tech lightweight fabrics. New manufacturing techniques can create airtight seams and joints that bend. That makes new spacesuits much easier to move around in than the old ones. "We have made so many advances in spacesuit technology since 1961," says Shane McFarland, a spacesuit engineer for NASA.

A NEW MOON SHOT

Other types of EMUs were designed for walking. Neil Armstrong wore one when he took the first “giant leap” on the moon’s surface in 1969. A wave of lunar walks followed during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and early 1970s.

That was the last time astronauts set foot on the moon. Suits designed for exploring moons or other planets haven’t been made since. But that’s about to change. NASA is preparing to return to the moon by 2024. In October 2019, McFarland and his colleagues debuted a prototype suit called the Exploration EMU, or xEMU. It’s an updated spacesuit fit for lunar exploration.

Among the upgrades, the xEMU has a new sizing feature on the shoulder that allows a better fit for astronauts of all sizes. “It is our hope that one day, no one will be excluded from their dreams of flying because of how or who they were born as,” says McFarland.

Some EMUs were designed for walking. Neil Armstrong wore one when he took the first steps on the moon in 1969. Other astronauts walked on the moon during the Apollo missions in the 1960s and early 1970s. But people haven’t set foot on the moon since—or made any new suits for it.

That's about to change. NASA is preparing to return to the moon by 2024. In October 2019, McFarland and his colleagues debuted a model of a suit called the Exploration EMU, or xEMU. It's an updated spacesuit meant for lunar exploration. 

The xEMU has a number of upgrades. One is a feature on the shoulder that adjusts the suit to fit astronauts of all sizes. "It is our hope that one day, no one will be excluded from their dreams of flying because of who they are," says McFarland.

Use percents to find the weights of different flight suits and spacesuits worn by astronauts. Round all answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use percents to find the weights of different flight suits and spacesuits worn by astronauts. Round all answers to the nearest tenth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Photo by Mark Avino, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM2018-10130) (SK-1); NASA (Shepard)

1961: SK-1 (left); Alan Shepard in Mercury flight suit (right)

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space while wearing the SK-1 flight suit, which weighed 44 pounds. Three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space while wearing the Mercury flight suit, which weighed 50% less than the SK-1. What did the Mercury flight suit weigh?

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space while wearing the SK-1 flight suit, which weighed 44 pounds. Three weeks later, Alan Shepard became the first American in space while wearing the Mercury flight suit, which weighed 50% less than the SK-1. What did the Mercury flight suit weigh?

NASA

1969: Neil Armstrong in A7L (left); Buzz Aldrin on the moon in a7L (right)

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin each wore an Apollo A7L spacesuit on the moon. Its total weight is 201 pounds. The suit itself, without life support systems and other gear, weighs about 62% less. How much does the suit weigh?

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin each wore an Apollo A7L spacesuit on the moon. Its total weight is 201 pounds. The suit itself, without life support systems and other gear, weighs about 62% less. How much does the suit weigh?

NASA Photo/Alamy Stock Photo (Jemison); NASA (Patrick)

1988-2011: Mae Jemison in LES (left); Nicholas Patrick in ACES (right)

In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. For liftoff, she wore the bright-orange Launch Entry Space Shuttle Suit (LES). The suit alone weighed 30 pounds. It was replaced by the Advanced Crew Escape Space Suit System (ACES) in 1994. The ACES had more safety features yet was lighter and more comfortable than the LES, weighing 7% less than the LES. What does the ACES weigh?

In 1992, Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. For liftoff, she wore the bright-orange Launch Entry Space Shuttle Suit (LES). The suit alone weighed 30 pounds. It was replaced by the Advanced Crew Escape Space Suit System (ACES) in 1994. The ACES had more safety features yet was lighter and more comfortable than the LES, weighing 7% less than the LES. What does the ACES weigh?

NASA

1988-PRESENT: ISS EMU

The ISS EMU was designed specifically to be used for spacewalks outside the International Space Station. The suit itself weighed about 122 pounds. But with life support systems, the weight increased by 161%. What was the total weight of the suit with life support?

The ISS EMU was designed specifically to be used for spacewalks outside the International Space Station. The suit itself weighed about 122 pounds. But with life support systems, the weight increased by 161%. What was the total weight of the suit with life support?

Boeing (Boeing Starliner); Under Armour (Virgin Galactic)

ANTICIPATED 2020: Boeing Starliner (left); Virgin Galactic Suit (right)

Later this year, Boeing plans to launch astronauts into space wearing the Starliner flight suit. It weighs 20 pounds. Virgin Galactic’s flight suit weighs 72.5% less. What’s the weight of the Virgin Galactic suit?

Later this year, Boeing plans to launch astronauts into space wearing the Starliner flight suit. It weighs 20 pounds. Virgin Galactic’s flight suit weighs 72.5% less. What’s the weight of the Virgin Galactic suit?

Liu Jie Xinhua/eyevine/Redux (xEMU); NASA/Joel Kowsky (Orion)

ANTICIPATED 2024: ORION (left), xEMU (right)

NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2024. For takeoff, they will wear the Orion flight suit, which weighs 48 pounds with the helmet and gloves. To explore the moon, they’ll wear the xEMU, which weighs 198% more. What does the xEMU weigh?

NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon in 2024. For takeoff, they will wear the Orion flight suit, which weighs 48 pounds with the helmet and gloves. To explore the moon, they’ll wear the xEMU, which weighs 198% more. What does the xEMU weigh?

What trend do you see in spacesuit weight? Write a short-paragraph answer on a separate sheet of paper.

What trend do you see in spacesuit weight? Write a short-paragraph answer on a separate sheet of paper.

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