SpaceX launched its first human passengers, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, into orbit on Saturday. They wore new space suits – the first time the company’s costumes were tested by people in space.
The astronauts wore space suits throughout the 19-hour flight to International Space Station (ISS), where they will stay for one to four months.
During a press conference on ISS on Monday, Hurley said the suits “very comfortable.”
Behnken added: “Both Doug and I, we have to give the costumes a five star rating.”
A new design for a historic mission
The space suits were customized for each astronaut and designed to connect to the seats of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceships.
Space suits are essentially complex, personal, human-shaped spacecraft: They must be flexible for astronauts to wear during long flights in small spacecraft, but thick and heavy enough to protect them from changes in oxygen levels and pressures.
“This one is designed for us to sit in our seats and protect ourselves if there is a fire or some kind of problem with the atmosphere aboard the Dragon – whether it leaks or has smoke in it or something similar,” Behnken said. “These suits didn’t have to do that job for us, which was nice, but it was clear that they were ready.”
The space suits were manufactured in Hawthorne, California, in the same building as SpaceX’s rockets. They are designed to be a single piece with specialized parts.
“A single access point on the thigh of the suit attaches to life support systems, including air and power connections,” NASA said in a press release. “The helmet is custom-made with 3D printing technology and includes integrated valves, visor retraction and locking mechanisms, and microphones in the helmet’s structure.”
The costumes feature touchscreen-compatible gloves that allow astronauts to pilot the Crew Dragon, whose control panel is touchscreen only.
SpaceX’s manned launch marked the first time NASA astronauts have launched into a US spacecraft since 2011, and the first time humans have ever flown a commercially developed spacecraft. The mission was the product of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a partnership between the space agency and private companies to build spaceships that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
Costumes had been in space before – but not in humans
SpaceX space suits had been tested twice before launch: Once on a dummy at the wheel of Tesla as SpaceX launched into space on its Falcon Heavy rocket 2018, and then on a dummy named Ripley who flew on the Crew Dragon during its unscrewed Demo-1 test flight last year.
Behnken and Hurley had practiced wearing the costumes in flight simulations on the ground as well.
“Bob and I have had a lot of time in these suits. I bet we have paired and dropped these suits a couple of hundred times,” Hurley said, adding that the suits worked better in space than on the ground.
“They were actually much easier to get in and out of zero g, which we calculated during the two days,” he said.
Most recently, NASA astronauts who have traveled to the space station wore Russian Sokol suits, since the United States had purchased seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft since 2011.
Musk’s design vision
During NASA’s coverage of the first launch attempt on Wednesday, which was scrubbed due to bad weather, Musk said he had focused on the look of SpaceX’s suits since the company began designing them.
“I personally spent a lot of time – it took us three, almost four years to design these suits that both look good and work well,” he said.
The New York Times reported that Musk dropped Jose Fernandez, a costume designer for superhero movies such as “Batman v Superman,” “The Fantastic Four,” “The Avengers,” “X-Men II,” among others, to create a prototype.
Fernandez told Bleep magazine in 2016 that Musk wanted the costumes to stand out.
“When people put on this space bag, he wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tuxedo,” Fernandez said. “You look heroic in it.”
Musk worked out that idea on Wednesday.
“You see space suits in the movies – they look good, they don’t work well,” he said. “You can create a space suit that works, but it doesn’t look good, because basically it’s a print suit that has to survive in a vacuum.”
But Musk said he wanted to design a space suit to inspire kids to become astronauts and donate the uniform themselves – to “get them fired,” he said.
“Everyone should be happy that this is a thing created by people, for people,” Musk added.