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Taran March @ Quality Digest


Nothing to Wear in Space?

Send in the Paris designers

Published: Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 12:03

My eye was caught recently by a gossipy article concerning NASA’s suit situation. Spacesuits, that is, not the standard-issue coat and trousers worn by many earthbound employees at the agency. It seems its Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a thumbs down following a spacesuit audit, warning that NASA was “years away” from having any mission-ready outfits for a couple of pending deep-space projects.

Nothing like opening the closet and seeing a conspicuous gap where your extravehicular mobility unit (EMU) should be hanging. The OIG’s report puts an orbital spin on the old lament, “But I have nothing to wear.”

The reason for the shortage involves a complicated tale of lead time, breakthroughs in material science, simulations, brainy bickering, and wads of money—not all of this last spent in a way that meets with OIG approval. But boiled down from the office’s uncompromising language, NASA has dithered about where it wants to send astronauts next, and not kept sufficient track of several spacesuit design projects. The result is some $200 million out the airlock these past 10 years, with precious little to show for it.

Under the suit: space longjohns

Since I have trouble really understanding how much money that is, for comparison I looked at another high-end garment industry, that of haute couture. Like aerospace, the 11 designer studios in Paris (think Chanel or Dior) have to deal with lead time, breakthroughs in material science, simulation, bickering, and yep, money—serious cash paid down annually both to create and own some article of handmade elegance. Employees earn about $75,000 a year for their work, which is comparable to an aerospace engineer’s salary in the $57,600–$140,000 range.

But here’s where things diverge. Whereas a designer ensemble can cost up to $100,000, NASA’s old EMU models, never mind the new, run about $12 million. They do come equipped with fruit bar snacks and three different visors for various lighting situations.

Only about 2,000 women in the world can afford to deck themselves in haute couture, but space travelers are an even more elite bunch: Currently, there are 43 flight-ready if suitless astronauts on NASA’s roster.

And the biggest difference? Unlike astronauts, those 2,000 women pay for their Chanel and Dior suits. If you figure their wardrobe budgets at an apparently modest $100,000, they increase designers’ coffers annually by about as much as NASA has spent failing to figure out the latest in chic spacewear.

On Earth: a pricey Chanel design

“As different missions require different designs, the lack of a formal plan and specific destinations for future missions has complicated spacesuit development,” sniffed the OIG. It recommended that appropriate NASA officials “implement a formal plan for design, production, and testing of the next-generation extravehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits in accordance with the exploration goals of the Agency, crew needs, and the planned retirement of the ISS [International Space Station] in 2024.”

Who knows, NASA engineers might welcome a hand with basic project management so they can concentrate on FMEA for as-yet unvisited planets. Here are the elements that need juggling, in case anyone wants to volunteer:

Old spacesuits. Originally, 18 EMU spacesuits were made for the ISS environment. They were developed more than 40 years ago and have outlived their projected 15-year lifespan. Some haven’t survived wear and tear, so the agency is down to 11 functional suits. Of these, four are kept on the space station.

Last year’s look: the extravehicular mobility unit (EMU)

New spacesuits. Three separate design projects are on the table: the Constellation Space Suit System ($135.6 million), Advanced Space Suit Project ($51.6 million), and Orion Crew Survival System ($12 million). The OIG weighed in heavily on the Constellation venture: “We question NASA’s decision to continue funding a contract associated with the Constellation Program after cancellation of that Program and a recommendation made by Johnson Space Center Officials in 2011 to cancel the contract.”

Regardless of which designs make the final cut, they will require lengthy simulation testing—first in Hawaii (a far cry from space) and then on the ISS.

 Old destination. The ISS is scheduled to close down in 2024, although it might stay in orbit another four years. Either way, existing suits are limited for that possible 10-year timeframe. Likewise time is running out for testing new spacesuits there, considering they are as yet mere gleams in design engineers’ eyes. “Given the current development schedule,” noted the OIG, “a significant risk exists that a next-generation spacesuit prototype will not be sufficiently mature in time to test it on the ISS prior to 2024.”

New destinations. This evidently stumped the agency for a time, but it’s now decided to send a crew around the moon in 2021; begin building a human outpost near the moon in the 2020s; and send a mission to Mars once the outpost has been completed and lived in for a while. New suits will be required for each venture.

On the runway: the extravehicular activity (EVA) suit

Here’s a thought: Why not get the Paris design houses involved? At the very least they could help with spinoff accessories, where the real money is made. There could be a gala fashion show with exclusive and ridiculously expensive tickets. Maybe the first lady could open the event with a stroll down the spacewalk.

NASA might think spatially, but it doesn’t think big. With a little imagination, the NASA brand could become a franchise throughout the galaxy, and this shortage of spacesuits just a quaint footnote in history.


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she can usually be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.