Boeing Shows Off New Spacesuits for Starliner Astronaut Taxi

Boeing’s Chris Ferguson stands tall in the Starliner suit. (Boeing Photo)

They look heavily inspired by the space suits from 2001: A Space Odessey. The new suits are designed for astronauts riding Boeing’s new Starliner space taxi, and they are the first practical full pressure suits to make a fashion statement – and all of it in rich, space hero Boeing blue.

The spacesuit made its public debut yesterday during a media extravaganza at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson there to speak about the new suits.

“I was essentially the model for this as they built the suit around me,” said Ferguson, who commanded the final space shuttle mission in 2011 and now serves as Boeing’s director of crew and mission systems.

The CST-100 Starliner is being developed as a transport vehicle for NASA crews heading to and from the International Space Station. It’s the approximate analog to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which has already been successfully flown as an unmanned cargo ship. It’s possible that Ferguson could go up as a Boeing test pilot, but for now, the composition of the initial crews is up in the air.

The new “Boeing Blue” spacesuits for the Starliner capsule weigh about 20 lbs. (9 kilograms) each with everything connected,  compared to 30 lbs. (13.6 kg) for the old space shuttle suits with the hard shell helmets. This still seems like a lot, but remember that most of the time they’re wearing them, astronauts won’t be subjected to the pull of gravity.  The material lets water vapor pass through to keep astronauts from getting drenched in sweat, while retaining the air inside the suit.

“It is a lot lighter, more formfitting, and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing,” NASA astronaut Eric Boe said in a statement. “Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”

The suit, designed by David Clark Company for Boeing, is meant to be pressurized in the event of an in-flight emergency. The new suits can’t be used during spacewalks. Extravehicular activity requires a much bulkier suit that weighs about 280 pounds. EVA’s require that the astronaut be completely protected from the harsh radiation environment outside the spacecraft; in essence, each astronaut is wearing his or her own completely self-contained spacecraft, complete with maneuvering thrusters.

Boe is one of four NASA astronauts currently training to fly aboard the Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which the two companies are developing to provide taxi services to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Both vehicles should start flying crewed missions in the next year or two, NASA officials have said.

NASA has tapped four current astronauts – Eric Boe, Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and Suni Williams – to train for both the first round of commercial flights on the Starliner and as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. All four have been testing the new blue suits, which is designed for use inside the spacecraft during launch and entry.

“The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft’s redundant life support systems,” said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”

A lightweight helmet and visor are incorporated into the suit, and hang back like a hood when not in use. When the helmet’s needed, the wearer pulls it down over his or her face and simply zips it up. The suit comes with twist-on, twist-off gloves, with fingertips that are touchscreen-sensitive so that astronauts can operate the Starliner’s streamlined displays. The integrated shoes look like cross-trainers, and come in a stylish color scheme that fades from deep blue to white.

Boeing and NASA will continue putting the adjustable blue suits to the test over the months of training to come. The current schedule calls for the first Starliner test flight to the space station to take place during the summer of 2018.

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