When they first met in 2007, Ted Southern and Nik Moiseev came from two very different worlds. Nik had spent over two decades working in the Soviet Union and Russia as an engineer of cutting edge garments that would be used to take cosmonauts by Soyuz rocket up to the International Space Station. Ted was an artist and sculptor who had studied at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and worked as an apprentice at a costuming studio in Manhattan. The closest he had come to having a garment of his fly to outer space was at Victoria's Secret fashion shows, where models still wear his impressive angel wings.
But NASA's Centennial Challenge, a competition sponsored by NASA to spur innovation outside of the agency, brought them together as competitors in a peculiar but important competition: to design next generation astronaut gloves. Each glove submitted would be subjected to an American Gladiators-style gauntlet of space suit torture devices, used to test performance under the stresses of outer space. After walking away without any prizes the first time around, the unlikely duo stayed in touch, and decided to team up and start from scratch for the next challenge, two years later.
Their new five-finger collaboration, achieved mostly from great distance, proved good enough to place second in the subsequent glove competition. Subjected to stress tests once again, their glove outperformed the current NASA technology at the time. With a second prize finish and a $100,000 grant from NASA, they launched Final Frontier Design, a startup that aims at designing the future of protective space garments.
Space suits aren't mere clothes. They're a complicated mixture of cloth, machine, and architecture, providing a portable environment for the fragile human body as it ventures out of the atmosphere. The earliest designs were hard, armor-like suits; later, Playtex, the women's underwear maker, would pioneer the relatively soft, relatively flexible suits used by astronauts today. Emphasis on relatively however: even if they have allowed astronauts to do the manual labor involved in building Space Station, these suits remain heavy, clunky and expensive, a far cry from the sleek couture of sci-fi fantasies.
That's changing. Although still heavily regulated—space suits are still sanctioned under an international treaty concerning military-grade weapons components—there has been increased cooperation and transparency between international partners. Once the Cold War thawed, governments and private subcontractors found it easier to exchange new techniques, materials, and testing methods.
From top to bottom: Spacesuit designs from the 1960s, NASA's next generation Z-1 spacesuit prototype, and Final Frontier's 3G suit and suit leg (Photos via NASA, Final Frontier Design, and Dave Mosher)
Back in 2007, they didn't expect they'd eventually be in business designing for space in a modest studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, but they probably also didn't count on the Space Shuttle going away or companies like SpaceX filling its place. But Final Frontier is part of a promising new trend in the space industry: small, cutting-edge companies taking up what was previously accomplished by teams of people in larger labs and factories. It has not been without its challenges, but, with additional funding from fans on Kickstarter, they are now working on their third generation suit, constantly refining their product in both weight, mass, and mobility. Gloves remain a big focus—hand functionality determines the functionality of the astronaut—and their new pressure garment prototypes offer improved range of motion, minimal torque under pressure, minimal bulk and a more anthropomorphic shape.
As China, Europe, Japan, North Korea, and a bevy of private space companies and satellite operators continue to up the global rocket-launching game—and NASA prepares for travel to asteroids and Mars—traveling to space is going to become far more commonplace. And as the space-faring capability of governments and the private sector expands, the pressure to keep costs low will drive the marketplace forward more than ever. No matter how you choose to get to space in the future, the harsh, unforgiving hazards of leaving earth's cushy atmosphere won't change. We'll need new techniques and materials to get there and then to survive and thrive once we get there. It won't be possible without big government investment or the Elon Musks of the world. But it also won't be possible without the work of a few ambitious entrpreneurs like Nik and Ted.