We’ve got a little bit of a “space race” going these days, 50 years after the first one. This particular space race is about which commercial entity is going to be the provider of choice for both travel and delivery of space-related services — like creating working flight suits that people would wear on space voyages, and other necessary components of routine life in space.
Last week SpaceX unveiled the look of its flight suit to great fanfare. Some people described the suit — which is sleek, futuristic, and basic black and white — as looking like the imperial stormtrooper outfits from Star Wars, but it clearly has a certain style. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, says the suit is functional, not a mock-up, and has been tested to double vacuum pressure. Interestingly, Musk also noted that SpaceX was focused on both esthetics and functionality in designing the suit, and that is was “incredibly hard” to balance the two, while focusing on one or the other would have been a lot easier.
Earlier this year, Boeing gave us a peek at its version of a flight suit, which passengers would wear on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft that is intended to deliver passengers to places in low-Earth orbit, like the International Space Station. Boeing’s announcement got a less less attention than the SpaceX unveiling, but then Boeing isn’t quite as cool as SpaceX. Boeing’s flight suit, which is “Boeing Blue” in color, looks a lot more like an updated version of the Apollo suits we remember from the glory days of moon shots and lunar rovers in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Of course, Boeing and SpaceX are just two of the companies vying for supremacy in the corporatization of space, and flight suit design isn’t going to finally and conclusively determine who gets a leg up in the competition. But the disclosure of things like flight suits is important nevertheless. It shows that companies are hard at work on the necessary nuts and bolts of spaceflight, and you can bet that for every item, like flight suits, that get public attention there are dozens of less interesting devices that are being developed, streamlined, and perfected.
The unveiling of flights suits has another important function, too: getting people talking about spaceflight again. When I was growing up, it seemed like just about every kid wanted to be an astronaut, and the space program was a constant topic of conversation. In the cool occupation pyramid, “astronaut” was at the pinnacle. The aspirational dreams of youngsters may not have made a difference in how the American space program was operated, but it provided an important core of support for NASA, and many of us still harbor those inner dreams even though the manned space program has basically had a 45-year hiatus. If the disclosure of the SpaceX and Boeing flight suits cause kids to begin dreaming about space again, it would be a good thing for those of us who feel that our future lies out among the stars.