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The Challenge of Tailoring a More Cost-Effective Space Suit

By Wesley Fenlon

How two inventors in Brooklyn are slowly winning NASA over with their cost-effective space suit designs and home grown radiation protection technology. The next generation of space suits will be the work of makers--that is, if archaic government regulations don't get in the way.

The first thing that stands out about the space suits at Final Frontier Design--aside from the fact that these are space suits hanging in an otherwise ordinary-looking Brooklyn workshop--is how colorful they are. One is full-body yellow like a spaceworthy banana. Another's a combination of orange, bright as a safety vest, and black and yellow. A third suit mixes black with a rich red that evokes the iconic red suit of 2001: A Space Odyssey. None of the suits look much like the silver suits of the Mercury program, or the puffy marshmallow of Apollo, or any other suits NASA's astronauts have made famous over the past 50 years. But the founders of Final Frontier Design, Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev, have their sights set on space. And they have a real shot at getting something they designed beyond the stratosphere.

In 2009, the pair won second place in NASA's Astronaut Glove Challenge by building a glove that was better than the one NASA uses in space. Soon after, they founded Final Frontier Design to iterate on their glove and start working on other space projects. Their designs are innovative and colorful, built around a goal of cutting costs when it's possible (and safe) to do so. They see a future market in consumer space gear, and that market will require cheaper equipment. And there's a simpler reason for cutting costs: Final Frontier Design isn't a defense contractor, or a government agency, or a startup with millions in angel investments. It's just two guys in Brooklyn.

"A huge part of our success is Nikolay," says Southern over Skype from the Final Frontier workspace. He does most of the talking while Moiseev sits next to him, following along and occasionally adding something in thickly accented English. Though it takes Moiseev some time to get a thought across in English, he's easily understandable when he does speak, as is his excitement for their work.

"[Nikolay] worked at Zvezda, the Russian space agency's suit provider, for 20 years as a lead suit designer, so he's had things fly in space since 1988," Southern says. "That's a unique experience anywhere in the world, so he's seen all the parts and all the components and all the problems and things that can happen. I think he has ideas about how to solve problems that, especially in America, people aren't thinking about. There are very different strategies in the Russian space program versus the American space program.

"Another thing that helps is we're really hungry. I still take freelance work in order to fund this...[we're] not paying ourselves for research and development."

In April, NASA announced its 2013 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts. Final Frontier won two. They're hard at work on a full-body space suit, gloves, a shoulder and elbow assembly, and other projects, like a sprayable radiation shielding. And while Southern and Moiseev are spending most of their time designing technologies they may one day be able to sell, there's a major obstacle standing in the way. ITAR, the United States' International Traffic in Arms Regulations, classifies space suits as weapons.

The Space Suits

Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev are not designing weapons. Their work on gloves, the shoulder and elbow assembly, and full IVA (intravehicular) space suits all focus on low cost and high mobility. Final Frontier's suit has evolved through two prototype models--the banana yellow suit and the orange-and-black suit--into the 3G, or third generation, design. They successfully Kickstarted $27,632 in 2012 to finish the 3G.

"The suit is essentially built," Southern says. "The real stumbling point for us so far has been the helmet. We completely redesigned the helmet visor." Southern shows off an earlier helmet prototype for comparison. "Before, the [seal] ring there, is from a MiG partial pressure suit. We got that on eBay or in Russia. There are some real disadvantages to that. You don't want to source things off eBay. It's not as functional as we'd like. But we also didn't want that neck ring going to the back of the neck. You want it to be comfortable. We also felt that the helmet closure is really difficult to operate. you need three hands to close [the MiG] ring--two to bring it down and one to bring it across. So our concept here is one person can close their helmet without help. And I think it's just more comfortable than this big heavy neck ring."

Moiseev and Southern reworked major portions of their IVA pressure suit between the second and third generations. They improved the lower torso buckles, switched out a heavy steel waist ring for a pound-light carbon fiber ring, and reworked the hardware on the front of the suit to follow aviation standards for audio and oxygen inputs. Standards are crucial for the suit, since they need flight certification to turn the 3G into a viable product.

As carefully as the pair are designing their suit to get the NASA seal of approval, its bold red color wasn't a deliberate decision. Neither were the color changes between suit models.

"I hate to admit it, but that's the materials we had on hand," Southern says. "They're good fabrics from a company called Lamcotec...At the beginning [with] our heat-sealed single-layer pressure garments, all that technology we made progress with was from a shipment of fabric for free. It was like a sample from Lamcotec. It came in black, that was the standard. So a lot of stuff we made was in black. International orange doesn't seem to be that popular. It's a good color for suits because of visibility. That's part of our criteria: what we have here."

Alongside the black-and-red 3G suit, Southern and Moiseev are working on another pressure suit that's all white. That one will go to Zero2Infinity, a Spanish company that plans to offer tourists the next-best thing to a space flight: riding in a "bloon" capsule 22 miles above the Earth's surface, two-thirds of the way through the stratosphere. Zero2Infinity ordered a Final Frontier suit through the Kickstarter campaign, but needed it to be white due to the capsule's large windows. A dark suit would get too hot.

There's one more differentiating factor between the 3G suit and the IVA suits NASA uses today, however: price.

"$200,000-$300,000 seems to be a government space suit number for IVA suits," Southern says. "And we're trying to target something more in the range of $40,000."

Moiseev says "You can buy a Sokol cheaper on Ebay [for] $25,000," referring to the Russian space suit that's been around since 1973. "Not guaranteed," he adds with a laugh.

Southern goes into more detail: "I think we can get it well under $50,000. I think the suit has to be affordable for commercial space, otherwise they won't use them." Final Frontier's two-man operation keeps costs low; he says they probably have less overhead than NASA supplier David Clark Company, who talked to us about the aesthetics of space suit design last year.

"I don't know what makes those suits cost $300,000. They're not particularly impressive to me. They're heavy military garments. They're 60 years old, the stuff that NASA uses. It's technology that flies on the U2 and the SR71. It's military stuff made for Vietnam and before. And the fact that they're still using it today is just incredible to me. But that's how things work. It's flight certified and they're comfortable with that, so they don't see the advantage in changing."

Another Kickstarter backer, a German man, ordered a 3G from Final Frontier last year. Though he had no special requests, actually getting the suit into his hands will be much more challenging. This is where ITAR rears its ugly head.

The Red Tape of the Space Business

Once again, Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev are not designing weapons--unless you believe International Traffic In Arms Regulations.

Due to a military history, space suits are still, to this day, on the US Munitions List.

"Space suits are considered weapons by the Department of State," Southern says. "In order to export these suits we need a license. We have a license with Zero to Infinity, but this German man is not a company, so it requires that he start a company in order to export.

"[ITAR] is a huge cause of worry and frustration for me. I just did my taxes and last year I spent about $6,000 in fees with lawyers to try to comply with ITAR. Think about that in terms of how much money we had coming in. We essentially had Kickstarter income, so about $30,000. So spending a fifth of income before expenditures on ITAR rules is just insane. I actually had some interaction with Zero to Infinity and their president Jose, before they bought a suit; he said to me 'I'd love to buy a suit. Just make it not ITAR.' "

Everything worked out with Zero to Infinity, but the regulations are an ongoing problem. And they don't just affect exports. Southern says he's had to turn down internship requests from Canadian students. Discovery Channel Canada wants to film in their studio, but they can't without a license.

Due to that military history Southern mentioned, space suits are still, to this day, on the US Munitions List. An article about ITAR, aimed at informing government contractors about the specifics of the regulations, aptly summarizes: "Intent behind the regulations is to cover military products, however, over time the USML has expanded to cover many items that have become commercial in nature."

Southern says that's what's most frustrating. "We're not selling military gear. This is expressly commercial stuff. If anything, it's dual-use. At this point, we're stuck with that. I am happy to learn that the Obama administration this year is planning on step by step changing what they call the USML, the United States Munitions List, to be more less inclusive of potential dual-use technologies. Especially for commercial space. I hope that space suits make it on his dual use list."

Thankfully, not all of Final Frontier's business is tied up by the regulatory complications surrounding commercial space gear. Working with NASA presents different opportunities, which is why Southern and Moiseev are working on so many projects.

Pushing Space Tech Forward

Final Frontier's two Small Business Innovation Research contracts with NASA are for a pressurized shoulder and elbow assembly--a new challenge for the two, since it's for an extravehicular, rather than IVA, suit--and a spray called RadFlex Pro, designed to provide efficient protection from radiation.

The pressurized shoulder and elbow assembly "is similar to what we're using now in our IVA suit models," says Southern. "That contract is great for us, partially because we can work with NASA on something beyond the glove, and partially because it's designed to bring us a little bit farther in terms of flight certification. We're using the same materials and the same layout as our IVA suits, so we can go through things like cycling tests and pressurized tests to advance our flight certification goal."

Final Frontier's work with the EVA shoulder assembly could actually be a sign of major change for the future of space suit materials. Typically, Southern explains, NASA's suits are double-layered, with an external restraint layer and an internal gas bladder (essentially an IVA suit). Wikipedia breaks those layers down in more detail:

"The bladder layer is a rubbery, airtight layer much like a balloon. The restraint layer goes outside the bladder, and provides a specific shape for the suit. Since the bladder layer is larger than the restraint layer, the restraint takes all of the stresses caused by the pressure inside the suit...The restraint layer is shaped in such a way that bending a joint causes pockets of fabric, called 'gores,' to open up on the outside of the joint, while folds called 'convolutes' fold up on the inside of the joint...once the gores are opened all the way, the joint cannot be bent any further without a considerable amount of work..."

With their focus on mobility, Southern and Moiseev are working on a single layer shoulder assembly. "The concept of the single layer pressure garment is that with a thinner wall, we can get higher mobility, because you would have less bunching at the corner of a joint, and lower torque, because there's no friction between the layers," he says. "Potentially, our goal here is to use slightly thicker denier fabric compared to NASA's restraint fabric, but overall reduce the wall thickness. So ideally what we're doing is reducing mass, reducing thickness, and increasing performance at the same time."

Southern says that in their testing, the single-layer suit is no less puncture resistant than a double-layer suit. If that bears out, the thinner, more mobile suit could offer the same degree of protection.

Moiseev added that working on an EVA component is a greater challenge when it comes to testing: "The IVA space suit, which is in-cabin--the pressurization is very important, but it will be only [needed] in an accident. EVA space suit is hard working, eight hours for one sortie into open space. And this long duration, it's a challenge. We have to pay attention to the safety factor also, so...we have to test 300 hours of work in the laboratory environment."

Final Frontier's other SBIR project, called RadFlex Pro, may prove to be their most commercially viable. Southern describes it as a "flexible radiation protective coating" that they plan to implement as a spray.

"Our concept at this point is to develop a method of manufacturing, specifically spraying on a liquid pre-polymerized rubber, to coat, and to actually soak into, a layer of fabric," Southern says. "[Rad Flex Pro] could potentially be used on a structure, aircraft or spacecraft...Nik has this idea about pilots flying New York to Asia go over the pole all the time. It's okay for passengers once a year, twice a year, ten times a year. But doing that every day, that's real exposure to radiation, and there could be something like a coating in the cockpit of an airplane that wouldn't add a great deal of weight, but could add a permanent shield that wouldn't be high cost."

For decades, technologies invented for outer space have been trickling down to consumers. With smaller companies like Final Frontier working to make those technologies as affordable as possible, that trickle-down time may be narrowing. Or even disappearing altogether. On an EVA space suit, Rad Flex Pro would be integrated into the outer micrometeroid garment layer to protect astronauts from radiation. But it could potentially show up in airplanes or hospitals, where technicians currently wear lead aprons to take X-rays, before ever leaving the atmosphere.

"I think that, amazingly, that's been NASA' strategy too, at least on paper," Southern says. "They say that there's this terrestrial application to what we're doing in space. Sometimes that's not quite the case, but there's obviously a lot bigger market, a lot more opportunity for people here on Earth right now. [For our] pressure garment and IVA suit, I'm not sure how those exact suits would have applications on Earth. But there's a lot of potential there, and if we can develop some brand of space suit, it's also activewear, and there are applications for our technologies you could use snowboarding or in a Formula One car or something like that. I think there's definitely terrestrial crossover."

Photos courtesy Final Frontier Design