For its upcoming crewed spaceflight missions, Boeing worked with David Clark Company, a Massachusetts-based company that makes flight and aviation suits, as well as headsets for pilots to come up with brand new spacesuits. The goal was to create a new kind of spacesuit for a new kind of astronaut – Boeing wants to be a leader in the new business of commercial crewed orbital missions, and the crew of its CST-100 Starliner, which aims to begin flying next year, needed updated equipment to match.
We got the chance to speak directly with Boeing Starliner Crew and Mission Systems lead Chris Ferguson, himself a former astronaut who visited the International Space Station three times. The suit is a big improvement according to Ferguson, compared to the ones he used to wear, especially with regards to astronaut mobility thanks to the lightness of the materials used. Visually, you can tell that it’s much-reduced in terms of sheer mass, and that reduction was made possible by focusing on what really matters for the astronauts, and by taking out stuff they won’t need for EVA activities – otherwise known as spacewalks.
From touchscreen gloves, to lightweight shoes that have more in common with today’s lightweight sneakers than with industrial boots, the new spacesuit is an exercise in minimalism, functionality, comfort and safety. Travis Ripps, a systems engineer lead for David Clark Company, explained to me that everything, from the slack in the rear and at the knees to allow for given when astronauts are in their seated position during launch, to a zip across the stomach to prevent bunching when bent at the mid-section, is designed to make sure you get solid pressurization without unduly impeding the astronaut’s ability to do their jobs.
Even sizing is kept to a minimum in terms of complexity: the spacesuit can be modified on the fly to fit a number of different frames, and just six total sizes can pretty much run the gamut in terms of addressing the needs of different-sized human astronauts.