Spaceflight Insider

Why are SpaceX and Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program spacesuit designs different?

NASA's Commercial Crew Program has seen two differently designed spacesuits emerge for use on Boeing's Starliner (left) and SpaceX's Crew Dragon (right) spacecraft. Image Credit NASA Boeing SpaceX

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has seen two differently designed spacesuits emerge for use on Boeing’s Starliner (left) and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (right) spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA / Boeing / SpaceX

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.

NASA released this infographic detailing elements of Boeing's spacesuit that the company plans to have astronauts use when flying on the CST-100 Starliner. Image Credit: NASA / Boeing

NASA released this infographic detailing elements of Boeing’s spacesuit that the company plans to have astronauts use when flying on the CST-100 Starliner. Image Credit: NASA / Boeing

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. 

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams wears SpaceX's flight suit design in this image. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams wears SpaceX’s flight suit design in this image. Photo Credit: SpaceX

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 wearing MACES spacesuits training in a mock-up of the Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Robert Markowitz / NASA

Astronauts wearing MACES spacesuits training in a mock-up of the Orion spacecraft. Photo Credit: Robert Markowitz / NASA

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.

Reader Comments

This article is innacurate. Spacex’s flight suit was unveiled in August of 2017.

“More in days to follow. Worth noting that this actually works (not a mockup). Already tested to double vacuum pressure. Was incredibly hard to balance aesthetics (sic) and function. Easy to do either separately.”

The reason the suit is different than the old style is that elon wanted the suit to make people look “badass” so people would want to wear it. He had a costume designer design it for form, and then chucked it at his engineers for “function”.

“Musk first announced plans to develop a revolutionary space suit in a Reddit AMA back in 2015, and reportedly told designers he wanted the suits to be “badass.” And in May 2016, he even hired Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez – who made the outfits for Batman, Iron Man and The Avengers – to help construct the suit.

“It’s pretty badass,” Fernandez told Bleep in a 2016 interview: “[Musk] kept saying, when people put this space suit on, he wants them to look better than when they did without it, like a tux, you look heroic in it. It’s an iconic thing to be a part of.””

Since youre on a first name basis with Musk, can you ask him which part of his company designed the suits? Who is the lead in terms of their development? Besides the ability to move around the cabin, what else are they capable of? What are their limitations? Will they include the various devices that Boeing has mentioned? I haven’t seen data regarding this and a lot of other info on these suits and want to know. There is a lot of generic PR type stuff out there and hyperbole but no real information and “badass” doesn’t qualify.

When a helmet hides the face of the wearer, I think that we perceive the front of the helmet as the face, and we relate to the person very differently.

I’m guessing that the actual SpaceX suits will have a clear faceplate for practicality, though I hope they come with a way to make the faceplate opaque, just for the dramatic look that seemingly transforms the wearer!

Haven’t heard of konbini but Reddit and The Verge are known temples for Musk worshipers. I wasn’t surprised to see Ryan fall all over himself to ensure any and everything was said the exact way the Space-X fanbase demands. Space-X hasn’t released jack about their suit and to state otherwise is ridiculous. A picture on Twitter and the phrase “badass” isn’t detailed information Ryan.

And what have you to say now? ✌️

I would love to know which companies have been contracted to produce next generation spacesuits so I may invest a few dollars in each one. Thank you very much!

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