Elon Musk teased space travel fanatics with the first photo of the SpaceX’s spacesuit today. On Instagram, the CEO of SpaceX claimed that the minimalist white prototype “actually works” and had already been tested in vacuum pressure.
Musk notes that the design team wrestled with balancing “[a]esthetics and function.” Eschewing bulky, formless space suit designs, the commercial spaceflight company’s formfitting suit appears to follow the “athleisure for space” trend that Boeing introduced earlier this year.
On pressurized spacecraft, passengers don’t need spacesuits all the time. But as Tim Fernholz writes, pressurized suits are a mandatory safety precaution in national space programs.
Experience has led space programs to conclude that a pressure suit is worth the weight, cost and discomfort. Soviet astronauts flew without pressure suits—“they wanted to project an image of this being a ride on a bus,” Nicholas de Monchaux says—but when an oxygen valve failed on a Soyuz craft returning to earth in 1971, it depressurized 100 miles above the ground. The recovery crew found the three cosmonauts onboard dead from asphyxiation. Now, all Soyuz crew members wear suits when they fly.
US astronauts on the space shuttle likewise went into space in “shirtsleeve comfort,” in the words of one NASA hand-out, until the commission formed to investigate the Challenger explosion in 1986 demanded more robust efforts to protect them. Pressure suits became mandatory, and the iconic “pumpkin suit”—or the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES)—was developed. (…)
On the International Space Station itself, most of the time is spent in shirtsleeves. Yet pressure suits still come in handy in times of danger—such as the potential ammonia leak that recently led some of the astronauts to briefly evacuate their compartment, until a sensor failure was blamed. You don’t wear an oxygen mask or life vest on a jetliner, but you still want to know they’re there if you need them.