Why are SpaceX and Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program spacesuit designs different?
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has seen two private firms develop new spacecraft to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit. It also has seen different spacesuits designed for the astronauts who would fly on them. As opposed to the orange “pumpkin suits” of the shuttle era, these new suits are blue and white and are as distinctive as the companies that produced them.
Recent events and announcements have helped show that the two current CCP contractors, Boeing and SpaceX, are allowed some latitude in the designs of the suits themselves.
Boeing unveiled their spacesuit in 2017 with former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson, a veteran of three flights to orbit, displaying the unique blue design of the company’s CCP spacesuit design.
“The color blue was an easy choice for Boeing. It supports proven Boeing heritage attributes and is symbolic of strength, a safe and secure foundation, and a pioneering future,” Boeing told SpaceFlight Insider.
In perhaps one of the first signs that the two suits would not be the same, SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, announced that their spacesuit would be unveiled soon. This led one of the company’s fans to ask pointedly, “It’s not blue is it?”
It wasn’t. SpaceX’s spacesuit was revealed in August of last year (2017) and it was white. Why the difference between the two? Not much information has been released about the Hawthorne, California-based company’s rationale behind the design other than the suits have been designed to allow them to operate within the confines of the Crew Dragon vehicle.
Indeed both suits’ sleeker look is a departure from that of those NASA used for two decades before the emergence of the Commercial Crew Program.
The orange color of NASA’s spacesuits was selected was selected for increased visibility against the blue and white of the ocean that crews would have to be plucked from in the event of an accident that required an ocean-based abort scenario.
Most NASA missions prior to the shuttle era utilized spacesuits with color schemes similar to those selected by Boeing and SpaceX. Blue, white and silver were the norm, with a dash of orange coming into play during the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project years (May 14, 1973 – July 15, 1975).
The differing colors and designs of the suit suggest that while the space agency laid out guidelines as to what the suits were required to do, in terms of their appearance neither company had to adhere to a specific design. This is a very different situation as opposed to what NASA astronauts wore while riding on the agency’s now-retired fleet of shuttle orbiters since the Challenger disaster in 1986
For 23 years, NASA astronauts flew to orbit in the Launch Entry Suit. Orange in color, these suits were worn by Space Shuttle crews from the flight of STS-26 in 1988 through STS-88 in 1998. The Shuttle Program began flying in April of 1981 and many of the crews on those flights wore comfortable blue flight suits with white helmets that resembled those used by motorcyclists.
After Challenger, the flight suits were replaced by the orange Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES). ACES was supposed to be phased out at the end of the Shuttle Program, which concluded in July of 2011. However, it received a sort of reprieve and was updated to become the modified ACES (MACES) suit that meant to be a part of the now-cancelled Constellation Program. Reports have stated that MACES could be used on the first flights of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
Astronauts utilize an array of apparel during their time on orbit. During flights to and from the space stations the suits worn are designed to both allow crews to operate the various consoles and instruments within the vehicle as well as to be able to carry out emergency procedures and recovery operations in the event of an anomaly.
While at the orbiting laboratory more casual clothing is used, polo shirts, t-shirts and functional, yet comfortable, pants are worn. The two suits developed by Boeing and SpaceX would only be worn during the trips two and from the International Space Station. While both differ and color and design, they each are required to fulfill NASA’s guidelines and are not the primary means of survival for crews traveling to and from the station.
The vehicles themselves would serve as the astronauts’ primary means of safety. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner utilizes a lighted beacon, survival radios and a bright orange life raft that will be equipped with high-visibility dye to attract the attention of rescue forces. The astronauts will also have their own Life Preserver Unit (LPU).
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft also has to ensure crew safety and has been working to have their offering be ready to support sending people to the space station in the next few months. According to a post made on SpaceX’s website: “Currently Dragon carries cargo to space, but it was designed from the beginning to carry humans. As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX is now developing the refinements that will enable Dragon to fly crew. The first demonstration flight for this program is targeted for January 2019.”
This article was updated on Oct. 24, 2018 at 7:01 p.m. ET to correct an inaccurate date.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.