An Inside Look at the New SpaceX SpacesuitsJune 01, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau
Manned spaceflight isn’t possible without reliable spacesuits.
Following a long-running bid to rejuvenate manned spaceflight, SpaceX launched their two-man Dragon spacecraft skyward from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley piloted the rocket toward the International Space Station (ISS)—successfully docking on Sunday morning.
But manned spaceflight isn’t possible without reliable spacesuits.
Suits Customized to the Astronauts
The team at SpaceX injected plenty of engineering prowess into the design of these galactic garments—ensuring the utmost levels of safety, functionality, and comfort.
Crew members Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley walk side-by-side sporting SpaceX’s latest suit design. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Each suit is created in-house and tailored appropriately, thus offering a customized fit. Added benefits extend beyond standard flame protection.
The Suits are Part of the Spacecraft's System
The spacesuit is a major component in system, one in which all parts work in harmony. A Business Insider report on the suits explains that an integrated wiring connector in the thigh accepts an "umbilical cable."
Chris Trigg, manager of spacesuits and crew equipment, explains the purpose of this umbilical in a video tweeted by NASA:
“When the crew gets in the capsule, they get in their seats and they plug the suit into the umbilical that’s attached to the seat…[It] provides the avionics, the electronics for communications…it’s providing the air to cool the suit and it also provides gas when needed to pressurize the suit. [It’s] really a single point that lets the suit do all the things that it needs to do.”
The helmet contains valves for the suit's pressure system and a microphone for communications. That’s a tough endeavor within a noisy spacecraft—likely necessitating an active noise-cancellation mechanism near the speaker’s mouth.
NASA itself even implemented similar speech technologies as far back as 2013. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect improvements to these older systems, especially for a tech-forward company like SpaceX. This is important due to “wire fatigue and blind mating of the connectors” common in traditional cap-based microphone systems.
Helmet of the new spacesuit. Screenshot used courtesy of NASA
Upon inspection, SpaceX appears to use in-helmet communications. Systems like these must contend with dynamic pressures, moisture, and other complications common with contained environments.
Lastly, helmets include retraction mechanisms for open and closing the visor on demand.
Many of Dragon’s onboard controls are touch-activated, and the crew’s suits are designed with touch-sensitive gloves. The fingertips in these gloves are made with electroconductive threads, whereas traditional space suit gloves weren’t.
Furthermore, SpaceX reduced physical bulk to boost dexterity—a major shortcoming in older gauntlets.
Crew Dragon’s touch-enabled gloves in action. Screenshot used courtesy of NASA
BBC's coverage of the evolution of the spacesuit reports that companies like Boeing make similar improvements with their Blue suit. Modern, sculpted fitting throughout has made the entire suit more user friendly.
More Technological Details to Come
Elon Musk stated that the suits were designed to ignite interest in space exploration. The sleek, futuristic design is packed with technology to match—some of which is yet to be uncovered—proving that beauty is more than skin-deep at SpaceX.
Balancing form and function will be a sticking point for future missions at NASA and beyond.