NASA's Amazing New Space Suit Is Unusual-Looking for a Reason

The new suit is NASA’s Z-2 spacesuit, a prototype in the Z-series of suits that the agency is developing for its future Martian explorers.

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May 1 2014, 3:57pm
Image: NASA

Remember when the Mercury astronauts launched into orbit wearing sleek, silver pressure suits? Granted, these suit couldn’t protect the astronauts against the vacuum of space or keep them alive walking on Mars, but they looked great. NASA has now unveiled the design for its next space suit, the one specifically designed with an eye towards men walking on Mars.

The new suit is NASA’s Z-2 space suit, a prototype in the Z-series of suits that the agency is developing for its future Martian explorers. And yeah, it's not exactly a looker, but for astronauts with eyes set on the surface of Mars, function is just a wee bit more important than form.

The Z-2 suit builds on lessons NASA learned from testing its predecessor prototype, the Z-1, in 2012. The Z-1 test program was designed to characterize the new type of suit, focusing on the interfaces between it and the tools astronauts will use when wearing it.

The suit was also designed to test astronaut interface using a suitport, a pretty cool concept that might replace airlocks. It’s possible that Martian EVA (extra-vehicular activity) suits will be stored outside the spacecraft, attached to the side of the habitat by a port. Future astronauts don and doff their suits through these ports, climbing into and out of their space suits. This would cut EVA preparation time from hours to minutes, and lower the chances of any contamination from the planet making its way into the spacecraft, which are both exciting developments.

An early render of the Z-2 design showing the suitport (arrow). Image: NASA

NASA also used the Z-1 suit to study astronaut mobility. Specifically, mobility in the hip joints, overall ease of use, and ease of donning and doffing the suit through these suitports. The suit left much to be desired. There were some concerns over how well astronauts could actually move while wearing the suit, and some questions raised for ingress and egress procedures. These are the kinds of problems the Z-2 suit will hopefully solve, or at least shed more light on.

Building off lessons learned, the Z-2 suit has a number of advances over the Z-1. Most notably, the Z-2 has a hard composite upper torso, where its predecessor had a soft upper torso section. The hard suit is designed to provide the necessary long-term durability astronauts will need if they're going to explore Mars over a series of EVAs. The shoulder and hip joints, too, differ from those on the Z-1 suit. The Z-2 suit seeks to optimizing mobility in these joints, and also features boots and materials that are closer to those astronauts will use when exploring Mars.

The Z-2 suit test program will test mobility and fit, but the agency won’t stop there. This suit will go through more environmental tests than the Z-1. Engineers will conduct vacuum chamber tests with the Z-2 suit, including a series of full vacuum tests to mimic the environment outside a spacecraft en route to Mars from Earth. There will also be test in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the giant pool at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston that astronauts use to train for spacewalks, and tests at Johnson in an environment that mimics the rocky, uneven surface of Mars.

The Z-2 will be the first suit to employ outer layer design elements like electroluminescent wiring. On a real mission, the cover layer protects astronauts from micrometeorite strikes, extreme temperatures, and radiation. On Earth, it basically just protects the lower layers during ground testing and brings some aesthetic appeal to the suit.

So why is the space suit such an odd looking beast? Well, the design was made to highlight certain mobility features and the suitport ingress procedure, so things like the weird joint in the mid thigh and the solid body were a given. But the design?

NASA left that decision up to us, the public. There were three design choices for the suit, none of which were beautiful, and the "Technology" option won with 233,431 votes (about 63 percent of all votes). This is the design that will be incorporated into the final Z-2 suit, which NASA expects to debut this fall.

Ultimately, all the testing done with the Z-2 suit will feed into the Z-3 suit, another in a series of non-flight or prototype suits, all in the name of keeping NASA on track to land humans on Mars in the 2030s.