How to Dress Well on Mars

As commercial space exploration accelerates, companies are perfecting the space suits of tomorrow. What do our space suit designs say about the past and future of the American dream?
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A sketch of pocket designs for the Mars Simulation Suit Project.

A sketch of pocket designs for the Mars Simulation Suit Project.

The Massachusetts design firm David Clark Company is housed in a large, nondescript brick building next to a large, nondescript rail yard just outside of Boston. The company's physical presence flies well under the radar, perhaps by design; the work it does is so secretive that employees are forbidden from bringing even their spouses to visit.

David Clark's namesake was a worker at a knitting company in western Massachusetts' thriving textile industry who started his own business in 1935 designing posture-support undergarments. During World War II, he read about the so-called "G problem," where the speed of aircraft outperformed what the human body could handle, and pilots passed out from the G-forces. Clark suspected that circulation (or lack thereof) was causing the issue. He was inspired to design a lower-body compression suit to help maintain blood flow using the expertise he gleaned from his work on posture support.

Having no means of manufacturing the kind of air bladders required for controlling blood flow, he pulled a few out of footballs and sewed them inside his prototype. He sent the whole thing to the War Department; it would eventually be developed into the world's first anti-g suit. That, in turn, became the basis for suits used in the Gemini space program and beyond. Despite the company's unassuming modus operandi, David Clark has been involved in designing almost every generation of space suit since the Apollo mission.

Space suit designers come from a variety of backgrounds, but they tend to have one thing in common: Their suits often form the literal boundary between life and death for the people wearing them, and they are excited by the chance to design something that brings humans to "the hairy edge," as Shane Jacobs, a design manager at David Clark, puts it. Designing something that allows humans to travel to physical extremes, Jacobs says, is a thrill.

But the suits also mean a lot, especially to Americans. Nicholas de Monchaux, a professor of architecture at the University of California–Berkeley, wrote Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, the authoritative book on space suit design. He points out that the word "space" was first used by the poet John Milton to describe a mythic home of angels and gods, a space between worlds.

"A business suit adapts you to a meeting, a swimsuit adapts you to a pool, a space suit adapts you for space—and transforms you as a result into literally an angel, in the classical sense," de Monchaux says. Even 50 years after Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, we're still obsessed with space and exploration, whether in fact or fiction, and space suits are a convenient entry point into that obsession: They allow us to imagine ourselves as angels, out there in the dark.

Creating a space suit therefore calls for more than just a mastery of a vast swath of physical forces. It may be that no single manufacturable item requires a more skillful blend of practicality and fantasy. Aside from engineering tasks of the highest level, designers also work in constant dialogue with humanity's collective imagination. In this country, that means tangling with the closely held ideas about patriotism and identity inherent to American space travel. It also means shouldering the responsibility of shaping not just our attitudes in zero gravity but also how we think about the state of things on Earth.

Where Do You Begin Designing a Space Suit?

Space suit design frequently involves the sort of innovation that calls for purloined football air bladders because its practitioners are seeking to solve problems not encountered in any other human context. For example, the suit that Jacobs is helping develop for the Orion—a spacecraft designed to run missions outside of Earth's orbit, to the likes of the moon or Mars—must be able to withstand extended cabin pressure loss. So Jacobs and his colleagues first had to return to one of the oldest space suit design challenges: producing a suit that can withstand internal pressurization.

"If you picture the suit as a human-shaped balloon, the materials of the suit have to hold that pressure and control it," he explains—instead of losing shape and reverting to a sphere, the space-travel equivalent of a basketball. The Orion suit must also be able to regulate its own temperature, allowing a human to eat, sleep, and breathe in it for as long as six days in case of emergency. That means it needs a feeding port where other suits do not, as well as a solution to what NASA recently dubbed "the space poop challenge."

Jacobs' work on a suit for the Starliner—essentially a taxi to the International Space Station—is significantly different. A suit for low Earth orbit requires fewer heavy-duty contingency plans. But the Starliner will still be crowded, with as many as five passengers in a space of less than 400 cubic feet—about the size of a cement-mixer truck. So Jacobs and his colleagues instead focused on making the Starliner suit as light and compact as possible. With that many passengers wearing classic helmets, "you would basically have five bowling balls, and where are you going to put them?" he asks. The solution: a softer, more flexible helmet that still protects from collisions, using specialized foam that absorbs energy on impact.

Rhode Island School of Design's Michael Lye has faced similar challenges through the program he runs, which matches design students with NASA projects. His most recent suit design project was for HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation), a Mars simulator taking place high on the slopes of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. As he started the design process, Lye was surprised to learn about the frequency with which astronauts sustain work-related injuries that might be solved through the proper design. If a suit is ill fitted, it can cause chafing and increase the risk of falling. Poor ventilation, friction, and pressure inside gloves mean temperatures inside can peak at 130 degrees Fahrenheit; astronauts sometimes lose fingernails after spacewalks. And suits can cause arm injuries over time if the elbow hinge is too stiff or the placement of the shoulder joints is off.

"There are so many dimensions to us, such incredible dexterity," Lye says. He and his students decided to support that dexterity by creating a modular suit whose parts could be mixed and matched to better fit an astronaut's specific body.

With all these literally otherworldly challenges, how exactly does one begin designing a space suit? In recent years, computer modeling has become increasingly important. Designer Clement Balavoine relied exclusively on virtual fitting in his project designing spacesuits for upcoming Mars expeditions. Jacobs and David Clark are working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a long-term project that would allow designers to study the ways suits are stressed and joints are bent in a virtual space.

But nothing beats the classic, hands-on approach.

First, Lye or Jacobs creates a mock-up based on the specific requirements of the suit: How much visibility and mobility will the astronaut need? What kind of range of motion is required? After that comes what Jacobs calls the "build a little, test a little" phase. Designers get testers inside the suits as early as possible to check for potential issues.

They even spend time in the suit themselves. "That allows you to say, 'I really need this [missing element]' or 'Jeez, it's hot in this thing,'" Jacobs says. "That will drive you to explore different solutions."

Michael Lye and his students designed a modular spacesuit meant to better fit individual astronauts.

Michael Lye and his students designed a modular spacesuit meant to better fit individual astronauts.

The final phase is exhaustive testing. First, pieces are tested individually, with machines opening and closing zippers or bending elbow hinges thousands of times. Then designers put those pieces together and test them in flight simulators or in "egress tests," where astronauts try them out in exit situations: in water, on land, or even with the astronauts zip-lining to safety during a test "emergency" on the launch pad.

Designing the American Dream

De Monchaux sees space suit design as about more than just helping humans survive on the "hairy edge." He argues that space suits tap into something essential in the American psyche and have played an important role in developing our modern national identity.

There was an "explicitly encouraged relationship between the closing of the Western frontier at the end of 19th century and the opening of frontiers of aviation," he says. "We had reached the end of the continent and the end of our potential. It was very explicitly and carefully redefined as upward and outward." This idea of space as the "final frontier" helps nurture national ideas of potential and growth, de Monchaux argues, supporting a narrative that Americans are compelled at their core to "colonize, inhabit, settle, pioneer." Space travel allows us to continue to expand our ideas of where we belong and what's possible.

So it is that, even without meaning to, a space suit designer busy at work is also participating in dialogue with a specific aesthetic and cultural tradition, and with our ideas about how space travel should look.

"It's impossible for anyone, including the hardest-core engineer, to get away from the cultural impressions we have about the future," Lye says. "Whether you do it consciously or unconsciously, everyone is being influenced by that. You can go back and look at spacesuits and space travel, at early science fiction, and see similarities in what gets proposed now."

Even the color of space suits—the glaring white we take for granted in pop culture—has been a playground for this dynamic. For many years, back when going to space was just an outlandish fantasy and few people had seriously considered how to design a modern space suit, space toys were silver, not white. ("The association between shiny stuff and things that are not of this world goes back to the dawn of civilization," de Monchaux says, citing the silver and gold on clothes worn by bishops and priests as a representative example.) In that spirit, when designers at the company BF Goodrich created one of the first space-bound suits, they made sure to paint it silver. When their suit landed on the cover of the tony magazine Colliers Weekly, it sparked what de Monchaux calls an "arms race of spacey glamor"; rival David Clark built its own silver suit soon after and snagged its own spot on the cover of Life.

The first suit to be worn outside a capsule was designed to follow this trend. Luckily, before takeoff, its designers pinpointed a crucial flaw: In the unfiltered rays of the sun, donning a silver suit would be "like wearing a disco ball in a tanning salon," as de Monchaux puts it. After that, less-reflective white became the standard space suit color, and space toys on Earth changed, too, cementing the enduring association between white hues and all things futuristic.

"It's really a complex semiotic back-and-forth between science fact and science fiction; they both shape each other," de Monchaux concludes. "There's not an easy separation between them."

Even Jacobs confesses that he's thinking more about aesthetics and spaceship chic now, as space travel moves toward a private model based on capitalist competition, rather than a government-funded process where every cent counts.

"With our suits for the Starliner, we certainly put way more into thinking not just about function but also form," he says. "Everybody wants to wear a space suit; you don't want to just be going up in your regular everyday clothes. You want to look cool."

Of course, achieving that ambiguous cool is easier with suits that don't have as much work to do, like so-called "IVA" suits (for "intra-vehicular activity"), which are never intended to go outside a spacecraft. Lye sees those suits—like the ones SpaceX unveiled last year—as more about narrative building than protection, specifically and purposefully tapping into the aspirational part of American identity that's wrapped up in exploration. "It's really something to see how a company like SpaceX goes about creating an image of what space travel is going to be," Lye says.

The 'Blue Marble' Effect

Among Jacobs' recent design achievements is a new outer space suit layer called an "environmental protective garment" meant to protect against abrasive dust on the moon or Mars. David Clark designers learned the hard way about this issue after the Apollo mission.

"They were on the moon three days, but their suits came back super dirty," Jacobs says. "It got into the zippers and everything."

The new layer is also designed to protect against micrometeoroids—tiny flecks of rock or paint that can create surprising risk at space travel's high speeds. On one spacewalk, an astronaut returned to find that the handrails had been whittled sharp by micrometeoroids, slicing into his space suit's gloves.

One of the primary challenges in designing space suits is creating garments that mimic the natural dexterity of the human body.

One of the primary challenges in designing space suits is creating garments that mimic the natural dexterity of the human body.

The key to solving problems like these, Jacobs says with excitement in his voice, is developing new materials. That's what he and David Clark have done with their Starliner suits. Where astronauts on previous missions had to wear undergarments outfitted with cold water pumps to offset heat from friction, Starliner's crew will wear suits whose materials regulate heat on their own—much lighter and more comfortable for the astronauts. Jacobs' protective garment also makes use of a new material, which features a sophisticated layering system that can break up an object going at literally breakneck speed and spread its force out into nothing.

One of Jacobs' favorite parts of space suit design is getting to play with this kind of innovation all the time, dreaming about a day when the new technologies he's developing might make their way into the consumer mainstream. It's entirely possible: David Clark recently teamed with Reebok on new footwear for a space suit, including new materials in the sole that lightened the weight by half. Then Reebok took that new material and adapted it for its own line of earthbound sneakers. Jacobs imagines that something similar could happen with the materials he developed for the Starliner astronauts.

"I hope to be able to ride my bike with phase-change materials: to feel cool when it's warm, warm when it's cool," he says. "Maybe with a little liquid cooling garment that's powered by my bike pedals."

Lye refers to these technological inheritances as "spin-offs" and says many people don't realize how much of the technology we use every day was first designed for space travel. The anti-g suits that David Clark originally developed for fighter pilots, for example, spawned an industry of compression garments designed to treat circulatory ailments and diabetes. These designs also contributed to the development of so-called "medical anti-shock trousers," which were part of standard supplies in ambulances for decades.

Still, Lye argues, the most significant spin-off from space travel and its accouterment—space suits, space toys, space movies—is something less concrete. He points out that the Apollo program unfolded against a backdrop of enormous social change, including the first waves of American environmentalism.

"A lot of the strength of the environmental movement came from the 'blue marble,'" he says, referring to the famous photo, which was the first full-color shot of our our planet. "That crystallized in everybody's mind new ideas about the Earth and its value." Lye thinks that could happen again, as we start looking to Mars and a new era of private space travel.

He hopes that, as space suits designed for missions that take us further from Earth attract increasing attention, they could also act as a wake-up call. Renewed interest in space travel is "highlighting that fact that we're taking extreme measures to get away from this mess that we created ourselves," Lye says, "and that we could probably find a way to fix."

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