NASA has gone a touch sartorial as it asks the public to vote on the design of its new prototype Z-2 spacesuit. Part of the Advanced Suit development program to come up with a replacement for the 22-year old suit designs currently used on the International Space Station, the Z-2 not only includes a number of technical innovations, but also a design that for the first time has an eye on the aesthetics of living and working in outer space.
In 2012, NASA showed off its Z-1 spacesuit prototype. The first new spacesuit developed by NASA in 20 years, it was named one of Time magazine's Best Inventions of that year. Its purpose wasn’t just to replace an aging system, but to introduce a number of new ideas to make spacesuits a bit more efficient.
Spacesuits are anything but an inflatable set of coveralls and, with the exception of Sandra Bullock, they can't be put on or taken off in a few seconds. If anything, they’re less like long johns and more like mixed-gas deep diving rigs that require a lot of training and about an hour to put on after a long, boring period of breathing pure oxygen to avoid a nasty case of the bends. The Z-1 was designed to make spacewalks a bit easier.
Among a number of innovations, the Z-1 included a rear-entry hatch similar to those found on Russian spacesuits, but had the added advantage of allowing the suit to dock directly with a spacecraft. This not only made the suit easier to get in and out of, but because the spacecraft and suit were of the same pressure, there wasn’t the need for a lengthy pre-breathing period. Then, of course, there was the aesthetic element that the Z-1 resembled Buzz Lightyear’s wardrobe, which caught the public’s imagination.
The Z-2 prototype is the next step in the new spacesuit's evolution. Unlike the Z-1, which was made of soft fabrics and was more of a concept in many ways than a functioning system, the Z-2 will be the first spacesuit designed specifically for working on a planet surface to be tested in full vacuum. Tailored using 3D laser scans and incorporating 3D-printed components, it’s also the first rear-entry suit to use a hard upper torso, which makes it easier to wear, more durable, more impact resistant, and configurable to astronauts of different sizes. In addition, the joints have been redesigned based on tests of the Z-1 to make them more mobile, yet compatible with working in a hard vacuum.
According to NASA, the Z-2 will undergo a battery of extensive tests of its mobility, ability to work in a vacuum, comfort, with neutral buoyancy tests in a pool to simulate zero gravity and working on a simulated Martian landscape at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Another first for the Z-2 is that it’s not only being designed for looks as well as function, but the public is invited to vote on the design. The competing designs were produced in collaboration with ILC, the primary suit vendor, and Philadelphia University, and are for the outer shell of the suit, which protects it against chafing and snagging, as well as incorporating luminous elements to make it easy to see and identify in the dark. The space agency says that the three versions are aimed at showing off some aspects of the suit’s mobility.
NASA points out that the final design of the spacesuit derived from the Z-2 prototype will look different because a flightworthy suit will need to incorporate micrometeor protection, high-performance fabrics, and thermal and radiation protection, which will not allow for some of the options used on the Z-2.
Voting is currently open with the deadline set for April 15 at 11:59 PM EDT. NASA says that the Z-2 will be ready for testing in November.
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