Boeing unveils the future of spacesuits
While everyone is busy focusing on the craft that will be taking us to space in the next few years, Boeing just unveiled the future of spacesuits, which some of the astronauts of tomorrow will be wearing.
Boeing, in conjunction with NASA, is planning on sending its new Starliner capsule into orbit with a crew at some point next year. Along with SpaceX and a few others, Boeing will fill in the gap left by the decommissioned space shuttle and act as a means to send Americans back to space using American vehicles for the first time in years. It will start simply enough with a few test flights, then possibly a satellite repair or two, and then move on to ferrying astronauts from the Earth to the International Space Station. With luck, it will then help to return us to the moon, and possibly beyond.
But while that is all noteworthy and very cool in its own right, there are other space technologies that are equally in need of an upgrade – namely the spacesuit.
American spacesuits have advanced over the years, but in general they remain bulky and hard to move in. They are designed to withstand the rigors of space, and despite some minor changes they’ve remained fairly static in their design.
For the Starliner, Boeing redesigned the launch-and-entry spacesuit using modern technology. In the case of an emergency it will protect the astronauts from things like leaks in the capsule, and it could even allow the astronauts to survive for a limited time exposed to space. It is not, however, designed for extended periods of time in the vacuum. For now at least, for spacewalks and working outside, astronauts will continue to use standard extravehicular mobile suits (EMU), which are essentially vehicles in their own right.
Boeing’s launch-and-entry suit is lighter, more flexible, and more durable than the current suits American astronauts wear. It also is more form fitting, and even comes with specially designed gloves that allow the wearer to interact with touchscreens – something there will be plenty of in the next generation of capsules. The helmet is also part of the suit rather than a separate piece.
It is also better in dealing with temperatures. It would be fairly useless if it couldn’t withstand the frigidity of space (at least for short periods of time), but another common problem for astronauts is dealing with the suit in average temperatures. It can heat up quickly, making it difficult to wear at room – or space station – temperature for a long period of time. Boeing’s suit doesn’t have that problem. It features vents to keep the astronaut comfortable, but they can easily be closed to allow for pressurization.
“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” astronaut Eric Boe said. “It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”
The suit was designed with help from U.S. astronaut Christopher Ferguson, a three-time veteran of the shuttle and the commander of the last ever shuttle flight. He – and presumably others – were encouraged to experiment with the suit’s flexibility by wearing it while doing stretches and running it through a full series of motion. It also helps that the whole suit is just under 20 pounds, about 10 pounds less than traditional launch-and-entry suits currently in use.
“To me, it’s a very tangible sign that we are really moving forward and we are a lot closer than we’ve been,” Ferguson said. “The next time we pull all this together, it might be when astronauts are climbing into the actual spacecraft.”