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Exploring the Aesthetics of NASA's Iconic Space Suit Design

By Wesley Fenlon

Why is NASA's space suit white? The VP of David Clark Company, one of NASA's primary suit contractors, spills the details.

At some point later this year, Felix Baumgartner will leap from a balloon floating 23 miles above the surface of the Earth and hit Mach 1--a speed of over 700 miles per hour--during his descent. 120,000 feet up in Earth's atmosphere, there's almost no air pressure. Even a few seconds of exposure can cause deadly air bubbles to form in bodily fluids. To avoid decompression, Baumgartner will be wearing a pressure suit designed to shrug off the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet plunge through -70 degree Fahrenheit air. The pressure suit, designed by David Clark Company, resembles a slimmed-down version of the suit Neil Armstrong wore on the surface of the moon in 1969--because it is, basically.

The David Clark Company began developing pressure suits for rocket plane pilots in the 1940s, and since then they've been responsible for just about every iconic suit worn by a NASA astronaut in the past 50 years. But there's something different about the Mach 1, the suit Felix Baumgartner will use to break the sound barrier. Something missing in all the suits David Clark designed for NASA.

It looks cool.

Photo Credit: Red Bull

Okay, that's not entirely fair--kids have grown up wanting to be astronauts for decades, in part because NASA's space suits are so iconic. But the Mach 1 is adorned with splashes of color thanks to Red Bull, the project's sponsor. The energy drink's name stretches down each leg like a racing stripe. For the first time in half a century, style is a pressing concern at the David Clark Company.

"Historically, and up until recently, form has always followed function," said Daniel Barry, vice president and director of R&D at David Clark Company. "The aesthetics of the suit were driven by the materials we had available at the time that could be used to provide the protection that was needed."

But now things are different. "We're seeing a paradigm shift to more commercial entities," Barry said. "As we get into more of a competitive environment, where you have different companies vying for commercial spaceflight contracts, one of the elements they're concerned about is brand recognition. They want to spend a lot of time on the aesthetics of the suit."

Photo Credit: Red Bull

If aesthetics are only just beginning to matter, what does that say about NASA's puffy white space suit and its golden visor? When the David Clark Company fulfilled NASA's requirements for a pressure suit using the materials available in the 1960s, they accidentally created one of pop culture's most recognizable icons.

The Materials of an Icon

In the beginning, there was the diving suit. In the 19th century, inventors began to build Atmospheric diving suits that maintained a normal atmospheric pressure, insulating divers from the crushing pressure of deep sea diving. They became much more advanced in the 20th century, and in the 1930s the design of the pressure suit leapt free of the ocean. Russian inventor Yevgeny Chertovsky built the CH-1, a simple jointless pressure suit, in 1931 (later pressure suits use specially designed joints to minimize the physical effort involved in bending arms and legs). Chertovsky used the term skafandr, from the French for "diving suit," to describe his invention. Scientists were beginning to realize that flying into the upper atmosphere--then only possible with balloons--wasn't so different than diving below the ocean.

Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration

"Basically whether you're talking about high atmospheric exploration, space exploration, or deep sea exploration, you're talking about taking the human body and putting it into an environment for which it was not designed," Barry explained. "The fundamental design of pressure suits has not changed since day one. You're basically putting people into a balloon."

Photo Credit: NASA

Of course, there are differences between deep sea diving and bounding across the low-gravity surface of the moon. Because astronauts operate in a vacuum, the only pressure put on the suit comes from within. That allows engineers to design large dome helmets that maximize visual awareness. Early diving gear, by contrast, had to deal with immense pressure forcing inwards, which is why early pressure suits had small, narrow glass viewports.

After developing pressure suits for pilots in the 1940s and 1950s, David Clark Company began working with NASA on suits fit for a trip to outer space. Scientists were still feeling out what, exactly, that entailed, and Project Mercury's shiny silver hewed closer to 50s sci-fi than the designs David Clark would soon adopt.

"The Mercury suit was basically a variation of a Navy suit that had been developed prior," Barry said. "For that particular program, one of the concerns was heat rejection. As you go higher in the altitude you have less atmosphere to filter out the effects of the sun. The thought was, as you get closer to the sun, the potential for damage could be enhanced. So the suit designers of the day theorized that using an aluminized fabric would assist in rejecting heat."

"Form follows function" would be a fitting description of David Clark Company's work for NASA in the 1960s had form ever entered the equation at all. That wasn't how it worked. NASA set objectives for the suits and the engineers at David Clark fulfilled them. That usually meant finding existing materials suited to protecting astronauts from radiation or abrasions or potential fires.

"With very few exceptions, the option to go out and engineer an application-specific material is just cost prohibitive," Barry said. "Even today when we deal with standard types of materials like nomexes and nylons, when we call our suppliers they're looking to sell us thousands and thousands of yards, where our usage may be a couple dozen yards."

Photo Credit: NASA

Even if space suits don't look all that different today than they did 40 years ago, the internals have gone through major changes, making them more comfortable for astronauts and eliminating some of the engineering challenges along the way.

"For years and years what we used in the construction of pressure suits was either a neoprene coated nylon material or a urethane coated nylon material ... the materials are very effective at sealing air in, however they're very stiff and very warm and uncomfortable. They don't breathe or allow any moisture to pass through. If you've ever taken a dishwashing glove and put it on your hand, after several minutes you'll find your hand is getting very uncomfortable.

Back in the late 80s, we were working with various materials for a next-generation pressure suit, when we discovered that so-called breathable materials [like Gore-tex] allowed moisture in the form of water vapor to pass through. A material that had originally been developed for sporting good applications, like a golf jacket, had desirable properties for our use."

A Splash of Color

Beginning with Apollo 13, four red bands of cloth were added to commanders' extravehicular suits just to distinguish them from other astronauts. Color has been important in the history of pressure suit design--some of David Clark's early pilot suits used a dull gold nomex to minimize distracting reflections in the cockpit and its more recent Advance Crew Escape System Pressure Suit is orange to help search and rescue operations in the event of an over-the-ocean bailout--but the EVA suits remain white for a simple reason.

"Materials have color based on how they're woven or how they're dyed," said Barry. "In many cases, if you dye a material, you may alter its physical properties, be its UV resistance or some of its insulative properties. That will always be a consideration in terms of what materials are used."

Photo Credit: Red Bull

Still, as material options continue to advance, David Clark can do more with color than they could in the past. The Red Bull Mach-1 will not be the only pressure suit to include splashes of color.

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Home Video

"We have actually expanded our staff to include textile designers, folks who come from the fashion side of the industry," Barry said. "If we have different materials available to us and we can change the outward appearance without impacting the functionality of the suit, there's no reason not to."

In another 10 or 20 years, commercial space flight programs like Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic will call for suit designs with brand stylings placed front and center. The most exciting technologies David Clark has in development will, once again, focus on function over form. The company is experimenting with adaptive textiles that change shape or elongation to enhance mobility in pressurized suits. They're also playing around with brain-controlled robotics.

"We're actually working on a project right now for NASA ... where an EVA type crew member who's out working on, say, a satellite repair, can utilize, essentially, brain waves, to control robotic assistants," Clark said, without a hint of how totally awesome that sounds breaking the calm of his voice. "[If] you needed a specific tool to do a task, you could merely think of that tool ... and a robotic assistant would bring it to you. Obviously those types of technologies are in their infancy, but there's been some breadboard demonstrations of equipment that can make something like that become a reality."

Ironically, science fiction has never affected David Clark Company's suit designs. They've never looked at a space suit from Armageddon or Red Planet and incorporated Hollywood's vision into reality. But brain-wave robots? Yeah, they're working on those.

Additional photos of David Clark Company space suits on the next page.

Space suits being made at a David Clark Company facility: