When the first humans left the earth—Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes, riding the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon 900 meters above Paris —they wore the long, ornamental coats, and tricornered hats in fashion for French aristocrats of the time. And when Orville Wright piloted the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, he wore the same cap, flannel suit, suspenders, and tie in which he would greet customers at his Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop. In the 20th century, however, adventurers of the heavens would begin to don more specialized gear, culminating in the iconic white spacesuits worn by American astronauts since 1962.
Yet spacesuits are not above fashion. This month, in response to popular coverage of its so-called “Buzz-Lightyear” green-and-white Z-1 prototype, NASA turned to the public to vote on the surface finishes for the Z-1 spacesuit’s successor, the Z-2. Of the three design proposals, one dubbed “Technology” seemed to be the front-runner (against options termed “Biomimicry” and “Trends in Society;” the winner announced will be announced on April 30.)The “Technology” design for the Z-2 spacesuit.(NASA)
As well as the futuristic elements common to all three Z-2 proposals (including electroluminescent wire for “astronaut identification, ”) the front-running design also harkens back to iconic suits of the 1960s, including patches of metal fabric reminiscent of the “Chromel-R” stainless-steel detailing on Gemini and Apollo suits, where the metal fabric protected against abrasion, and in the case of early Gemini suits, rocket exhaust from an experimental jet-pack.
The experimental Z-2 is but the latest solution to what turns out to be an enormously difficult problem: suiting mankind for space. Like an overinflated basketball, a spacesuit filled with life-giving air wants to be round, rigid, and rock-like. Yet while spacesuits have to be filled with a pressurized atmosphere (neither our lungs, nor any other part of our body do particularly well otherwise), they also have to be comfortable, maneuverable and flexible. Early spacesuits—like the Gemini suit to which the Z-2 “Technology” design harkens—mostly solved this problem by demanding extraordinary efforts of the astronauts who wore them. (Gemini astronaut Gene Cernan sweat so much with the effort of moving his suit during an early spacewalk that several buckets of water were emptied from his rubber-lined suit when he finally made it back to earth.)The Gemini suit doubled as weight-loss device. Ed White makes the first US spacewalk in June 1965.(NASA)
Since the days of Apollo, however, astronauts have had slightly more comfortable gear. It was the futuristic Z-2’s manufacturer, ILC Dover, who designed and built the iconic suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969. At the time, ILC turned not just to the state-of-the art in engineering, but to its own, more intimate experience of fashion. While now independent, the firm has its origins in a small division of the company best known for its Playtex bras and girdles, whose seamstresses sewed the Apollo suits on standard Singer sewing machines. (The resemblance to earthly fashion was even more than skin-deep; at their core the Apollo suits used the same latex and nylon fabric as the firm’s bras and girdles, molded together into a bellows-like “convolute” that allowed superior flexibility to earlier suit designs.)Seamstress Hazel Fellows sewing the thermal micrometeoroid garment of the ILC A7L spacesuit.(Courtesy ILC Dover)