Autho Marc Bain October 17, 2019
The first travelers to depart Earth on board a Virgin Galactic space flight won’t look like the astronauts of years past, with their bulky pressure suits and large domed helmets. They will be wearing soft, flexible jumpsuits that, up close, stand somewhere between a flight suit and a pair of thick pajamas.
It’s a sign of how far apart the missions of those career astronauts and these soon-to-be space tourists really are. “The big difference between suits of the past and this suit is that those suits were to perform a task, and this suit is to enjoy and savor space on your own terms, in a bespoke way,” said Beth Moses, the chief astronaut trainer at Virgin Galactic—the space tourism venture of billionaire Richard Branson—at an unveiling event today (Oct. 16).
Created by sports clothing company Under Armour, the suit—included as part of the $250,000 trip cost—is really multiple pieces, starting with a top and bottom base layer. According to Nick Cienski, Under Armour’s chief innovation apparel designer, they’re made of materials that keep the wearer cool and dry while promoting blood flow during the zero-gravity and high G-force portions of the flight. The bottoms, for example, squeeze the legs gently to keep blood moving above the waist, Cienski said.
The suit itself, he said, is lined in different fabrics to manage temperature and moisture. It has articulated knees and elbows for mobility, and is made from material that’s knit rather than a woven. It’s like the difference between wearing cotton sweatpants and wearing jeans. The unveiling took place at an indoor skydiving facility in Yonkers, New York, which included a dramatic presentation involving classical music and performers in the suits doing aerial acrobatics—not quite zero-G, but it made the point.
The clothing for the first space tourists doesn’t just have to function. It’s also a piece of historic branding. George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, pointed out during the presentation that, in a hundred years, these suits may be in a museum. Trevor Beattie, who signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic back in 2004, noted that one of the most famous photos in history contains a spacesuit.
Under Armour and Virgin Galactic designed the suits to be practical enough so the astronauts could wear them after their trips. Asked when she might wear hers, Jennifer Rallison, another signed-up amateur astronaut, replied “Every Halloween for the rest of my life.” The astronauts will get flight jackets to wear more casually too.
The project is also a showcase for Under Armour. Kevin Plank, the company’s CEO, said the suit uses at least eight signature Under Armour technologies, such as Hovr, its popular sneaker cushioning, which here doubles as padding around the suit’s shoulders and neck, the areas where a buckled-in astronaut will need some cushioning during high-G parts of the trip. The company has plans to release derivative products that the general public can buy. This is, after all, about making space travel commercial.