Virgin Galactic Unveils Jumpsuit for Space Tourists
YONKERS, N.Y. — Once there was the era of space-age fashion. Now the age of fashion for space has arrived.
On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic, the company started by Richard Branson to take people to the edge of space aboard a rocket-powered plane, is unveiling sleek, high-tech garments that passengers will wear during their trips.
They are not spacesuits like the ones that NASA astronauts put on for rocket launches and spacewalks. Rather, they are one-piece jumpsuits like those worn by military pilots, with a design that wouldn’t be out of place on the bridge of the starship Enterprise. They come with fancy underwear to help maintain comfort during the trip up and down.
“I think every single person who goes to space will be delighted with it,” Mr. Branson said in an interview. “I think the whole experience of going to space should be sexy. Our spaceships are sexy. Our mother ships are sexy. Our spaceport is sexy. And for younger people than myself, this suit is also sexy.”
As part of the price of the ticket — the cost of a seat is currently $250,000 — the Virgin Galactic customers will get to keep their space clothes including the jumpsuits, underwear and boots.
The company introduced them with theatrical flair at an indoor skydiving facility, with dancers demonstrating the flexibility of the “base layer” garments worn under the flight suit. Then others showed off the full suit while performing acrobatic flips as they hovered in the skydiving chamber.
Mr. Branson then walked in wearing his flight suit, although without doing any flips himself. “Coordination is definitely not one of my strong points,” he said. “Watch out, for anyone else in the spaceship with me.”
Virgin is not the only organization showing off new space wear. On Tuesday, NASA demonstrated two new spacesuits that will be used for its upcoming missions to the moon. While Virgin space wear conjures going boldly where no one has gone before, NASA’s gear, which must function in more rugged environments beyond Earth’s orbit, is drawn from familiar forms that have guided the space agency’s engineers for decades.
The new NASA spacesuits will offer improvements over existing models for the men and women expected to wear them, including greater comfort and movement.
The other spacesuit, with a bright red, white and blue pattern, is called the exploration extravehicular mobility unit. That is what astronauts will wear as they explore the moon’s surface.
At an event on Tuesday at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, Kristine Davis, who works in the agency’s spacesuit engineering efforts, showed how the new design makes it easier to walk, bend and twist.
“You remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, they bunnyhopped on the surface of the moon,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator. “Well, now we’re actually going to be able to walk on the surface of the moon, which is very different than our suits in the past.”
The suits are designed to work in temperatures ranging from 250 degrees Fahrenheit down to -250 degrees and potentially even colder places around the lunar South Pole, where NASA is aiming to send astronauts.
The other suit, in a bright orange fabric, is to be worn by astronauts during launch and re-entry to Earth inside Orion, NASA’s crew capsule for deep-space travel. The suit provides protection and oxygen in case of an accident that causes the capsule to become depressurized.
Private companies other than Virgin have debuted their own novel takes on the spacesuit in recent years, each intended to clothe astronauts headed from Earth to the International Space Station.
SpaceX, which could start flying astronauts to the space station next year, sent a mannequin wearing its suit to orbit in March aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. The suit featured a 3D-printed helmet and a black and white design that seemed inspired by motorcycle racing suits.
Boeing, whose Starliner capsule will also travel to the station, unveiled its blue, zippered suit in 2017. It is about 10 pounds lighter than what astronauts wore on the space shuttle.
For its garments, Virgin Galactic enlisted Under Armour, the maker of high-performance sportswear, to develop the out-of-the-world garb. Virgin Galactic wants its passengers not only to look good but also to feel comfortable to fully appreciate the flight, which will soar to an altitude of more than 50 miles.
“They have to be fully present,” said Randy Harward, senior vice president for advanced materials at Under Armour. “They can’t be hot and sweaty and annoyed and itchy. They’ve got to be super comfortable.”
Mr. Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, had originally expected the company to start flying years ago. But progress was slow, and in 2014, the first of its space planes disintegrated during a test flight, killing a pilot. After making design changes in the second space plane, Virgin has completed other test flights successfully, the most recent in February.
Company officials now say, with increasing confidence, that next year Mr. Branson will finally get his ride on his space plane, taking off from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Then the first of more than 600 people who have signed up will follow.
“We’re getting very, very close,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic.
More people are interested. Mr. Branson said Norman Foster, the renowned 84-year-old architect who designed the futuristic-looking terminal at Spaceport America, “just wrote me a letter about three or four days ago, asking could we take him to space?"
Not all the passengers will be tourists. This month, Virgin Galactic announced that the Italian Air Force has signed a contract to fly three people and a package of experiments. “The tests conducted by the Air Force will be mostly aimed at studying the effects of acceleration, deceleration and microgravity on a human body,” said Col. Gianmattia Somma, an Italian Air Force spokesman.
Each trip will last about 90 minutes, from takeoff to a gliding landing. Most of that time will transpire as the space plane is carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a larger carrier aircraft. After the space plane is dropped, its engine ignites. The most exciting part of weightlessness will last only about five minutes.
For the past year and a half, Under Armour designers at the company’s research center in south Baltimore have been putting together prototypes in a small section of the cavernous space, cordoned off by a tall red curtain.
They first made some design decisions. They considered a two-piece flight suit but settled on a more traditional one-piece configuration. “We didn’t want to stray too far from that,” said Nick Cienski, the senior innovation director for outdoor apparel at Under Armour who led the work for Virgin Galactic.
That allowed something that looked “not too strange,” but that was still fashionable, he said.
They settled on a palette of three blues and gold, colors selected from images of Earth backlit by the sun.
The first suit, for Mr. Branson, was completed last week. It took 10 people five days to construct it.
“It is the most labor intensive product we’ve ever made,” Mr. Cienski said.
Under Armour’s experience with making sportswear for top athletes with fabrics that wick away perspiration but still retain body heat helped with creating designs that can deal with the temperature swings a space tourist can expect. It also fits into the overall design that Virgin Galactic envisions.
“It’s actually integrated into the seat system,” Mr. Whitesides said. “It’s a very holistic design. The suit fits into the seat which fits into the spaceship interior.”
Each flight suit has a bounty of pockets for carrying mementos. On a gold rectangle inside the chest area of the flight suit, passengers could write a “personal mission statement” for why they want to go to space.
Padding on the shoulders of the flight suit cushion the harnesses that will hold the passengers to their seats through most of the flight. “There’s a lot of small details we thought through,” Mr. Cienski said.
Mr. Cienski is also working on the flight suits for the pilots, which will look different but incorporate many of the same features.
Like much of the technology needed for space, the extreme requirements pushed innovation. Under Armour was able to take advantage of tools it already had in the works, such as machines that spin threads of varying widths as they weave together the fabric. After demonstrating that they work for the flight suits, it can then deploy them for other products. The material used for the slipperlike boots for the Virgin Galactic passengers, for example, will soon show up in shoes for football players.
“The learning in this helped us prove it really does work, and we can find a path to commercialization,” said Clay Dean, the chief innovation officer for Under Armour. “I think if you look at the original space program for NASA and the things it spawned in terms of developments that we never imagined, we’re finding the same.”