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NASA Finishes Testing Prototype Z-1 Space Suit

By Wesley Fenlon

NASA's prototype suit uses bearings for mobility and a back hatch to allow astronauts to quickly climb into the suit. It also looks like Buzz Lightyear.

Astronaut paging Star Command. Come in Star Command!

NASA's space suit designs have evolved over the years from the fighter pilot silver of Mercury to the Michelin Man puffiness of the experimental AX-5 hard suit, and it looks like the next step may accent the classic white suit with some bright green stripes. Buzz Lightyear has arrived.

And NASA doesn't know where he's going. With the near future of the space program up in the air, NASA's building the prototype of its next space outfit to suit a variety extraplanetary missions. One of the key designs of the suit is a large port attached to the back, which astronauts can use to expediently enter and exit the suit. More importantly, the port can be used to dock the suit to the side of a shuttle or space station, bypassing the need for an airlock. It's efficient.

The Z-1 prototype suit is also mobile. Bearings in the suit's joints will give astronauts the flexibility to hop over lunar or martian soil with more grace than the explorers who wore older NASA exosuits. But the basic technology remains the same as existing space suits, meaning astronauts will still fight against the balloons of air inside their suits to move, expending extra energy with every step or bend of the arm. Of course, since those balloons of air are keeping them alive, the trade-off is worthwhile.

Z-1 is just a prototype that NASA will be building on with Z-2 and Z-3 revisions.

A focus on radiation protection will make the Z-1 suitable for longer spacewalks, but there's a good chance NASA's astronauts will look little like Buzz Lightyear by the time they actually were the next-generation suit into space. Despite being named one of Times' best inventions of the year, Z-1 is just a prototype that NASA will be building on with Z-2 and Z-3 revisions. NASA recently finished testing the suit, which means work on the Z-2 can't be far off.

NASA plans to have the Z-3 spaceworthy and up on the ISS by 2017. We hope the green piping sticks around, if only to give the suit a fun splash of color. As we learned talking to the NASA-contracted suit makers at David Clark Company, they have textile designers on-staff to add a little modern flair to their suits, like Felix Baumgartner's red-and-yellow Red Bull Stratos suit. (Correction: The Z-1 suit was designed by iLC Dover for NASA and not David Clark Company.)