Style in space tends to advance at a slower pace than fashion on Earth: The spacesuits currently worn at space stations have been in continuous use since 1982. But when NASA needed to update the suit to accommodate new missions on the moon and Mars, they decided to update the look, too. A trio of flashy new "cover layers" that can go over the suit were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even—supposedly—street fashion. Now anyone can help decide among the three by casting a vote on NASA's website.
The "Z-series" suits are actually a big leap from the past. Unlike the current microgravity suits, which are basically designed for floating around in space, the Z-series is designed for walking (it's also worth checking out this MIT professor's sleek Mars spacesuit, currently in development).
"There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit," says Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design. "A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there."
The new suit makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on differently: While the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside. "You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin," Jones explains.
The first version of the suit, released in 2012, looked a little like Buzz Lightyear's outfit. The new version, with different joint designs and a more durable torso, has cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University.
One option, inspired by underwater creatures, employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version, designed in homage to past spacesuits, uses light-emitting patches along with wire, and extra patches on the legs to help make the cover more durable. NASA says the final design is "reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future," pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech.
NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year.