NASA and Axiom Space have unveiled the first major spacesuit redesign in four decades. Astronauts are getting hip.
Space is getting a new look — sort of. On Wednesday, just a week after the end of the Paris fashion collections and with the sort of sonic crescendo attached to the most extravagant runway shows, NASA unveiled the new Artemis III lunar spacesuit at Space Center Houston. Which is to say, the first real reconsideration of the spacesuit in 40 years.
Unlike the spacesuit redesigns of private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, the Artemis III spacesuit is not meant to be worn solely within a spacecraft but on the surface of the moon too, specifically the never-before-visited lunar south pole.
Created in collaboration with Axiom Space, it has an outer cover in black for a bit of edge, with cool splashes of navy and orange at the knees, shoulders and ankles and a deep-V overlay at the chest — for victory, or vroom. (There’s also a little American flag on one shoulder.) The effect is less Michelin Man, the style of the old Apollo suits, and more Hulk-meets-anthropomorphic-anteater-meets-“Star Trek.”
At least that’s the look of the current version, which will be worn by astronauts on the ground and during training. When astronauts step onto the moon in 2025, the dark cover layer will be swapped for a white insulation layer for thermal protection.
Still, the basic silhouette — with articulated joints at the elbows, a big backpack at the rear for life support systems, a humped torso that connects to the helmet, and arms that curve away from the body as if they are holding a giant beach ball — will remain the same. As will the fact that the suit is essentially gender nonbinary and created with a variety of adjustable parts to fit all sizes of bodies and allow for increased flexibility.
For all that, however (and that is a big deal), the total effect is still very much within the recognizable spacesuit tradition, at least to the untrained eye.
So why make such a big deal about it?
It’s not just because of its cost (the order has a “base value of $228.5 million,” according to information provided by NASA) or its technical specifications, which are extreme: Nicholas de Monchaux, the head of architecture at M.I.T. and the author of “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo,” described it as “really less a piece of clothing than a very small building or a very small spacecraft.”
It is because, as Mr. de Monchaux said, the spacesuit is “the costume for the drama we project into space.” The way we “put ourselves into the heavens.”
Any small change to the way it looks has potentially big repercussions, not just for the astronauts who wear it, but in the popular imagination. Capture that, and you capture public support (which, when you are a government agency embarking on a very expensive mission, is no small thing).
It’s not a coincidence that along with the Axiom engineers, seamstresses and technology specialists, Esther Marquis, the costume designer for the Apple TV+ series “For All Mankind,” which imagines an alternate narrative for America’s first moon colonies, was also involved in creating the new suit.
(In working with Ms. Marquis, Axiom is following in the footsteps of Mr. Musk, who turned to Jose Fernandez, a costume designer who worked on “Batman v Superman” and “The Fantastic Four,” for the SpaceX outfits.)
The spacesuit occupies a singular place in our mental landscapes and has ever since John Milton used the term “space” for “outer space” — which is to say, the place angels reside — in “Paradise Lost.”
The suit is “about the heroic quest for new land and new frontiers,” said Debra Benita Shaw, an associate professor in cultural theory at the University of East London and author of the paper, “Bodies Out of This World: The Space Suit as Cultural Icon.”
“Now, because of global warming and other threats to human life, it has also taken on new meaning as a symbol of escape,” Dr. Shaw said. “It also represents the fragility of that life.”
For most viewers, the suit is the human point of connection to the unknown, the one familiar item in a foreign world of technology and science. We may not understand the language of astronauts or even how they live in a zero-gravity environment, but everyone wears clothes.
According to Dr. Shaw, sometimes technology feeds our imagination, but oftentimes, our imagination actually shapes our technology.
Indeed, Mr. de Monchaux said, the first spacesuits, the ones that appeared on the cover of Life magazine on Jan. 6, 1958 — silvery, gleaming, evocative of “frontiers beyond earth,” as the cover lines read — were silver not because of any specific technical reason, but because the company that made them understood that if they were the color of starlight rather than the dull khaki of previous flight suits, they would appeal to the watching public. They would play into popular preconceptions of what a spacesuit should look like.
It was later, once astronauts began embarking on spacewalks, that spacesuits were remade in white because it turned out that silver reflected the sun and ran the risk of dazzling the astronauts. Now they come (at least for the moment) in black. One small step for man, one big step for space style.
The redesign may be a surprise to lunar aficionados, but fashionistas would understand. There’s a reason fashion has long reflected a fascination with space travel, from the balloon sleeves of late 18th-century France, a reference to the hot air balloons that allowed man’s first forays into the air, through the sci-fi styles of Paco Rabanne and André Courrèges. It was only a few weeks ago that Ib Kamara’s Off-White ready-to-wear show was set in an imaginary lunar landscape and inspired by the question, “What would you wear in outer space if you were a boy who liked to rap and was cool enough?”
His collection provided one answer. This week, NASA and Axiom offered another.