SpaceX’s futuristic spacesuit will do more than make astronauts look cool
The company's crewed mission, set for later this month, will help support missions to Mars.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon suits, beyond looking like ideal galaxy-exploring attire, will provide data that helps inform future missions like Starship.
The suits will receive their first major outing on May 27, when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will embark on the "Demo-2" mission. It's the first manned mission for the SpaceX Crew Dragon, a new capsule designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It's the first time SpaceX will have flown people into space, and it precedes more ambitious missions like a trip around the moon and a city on Mars by 2050. These latter missions will be powered by Starship, a stainless steel behemoth under construction in Texas with the ability to launch over 150 tons or 100 people into space at once.
During a Friday press conference ahead of the Crew Dragon launch, Inverse asked Benji Reed, director of crew mission management at SpaceX, whether the suits will serve as the basis for these future missions like a manned Mars mission and whether they will require modification. He responded:
"The suits themselves are designed particularly for use within Dragon, and as our focus on transporting NASA crew to and from the space station. So that's our number one focus for the suits today. But just like all systems on Dragon, and in Falcon, and everything else that we do here, we've designed and developed them based on knowledge of all the past systems that have been designed and developed by others. And then we take the designs and results of our work and the data that we get from tests and actual flight to feed into future work. So as we look toward the future, certainly. We'll be taking what we learned from these suits and getting the data from it and applying that for future missions."
The suits have been one of the most visible design elements of future space missions. CEO Elon Musk first revealed the space suit back in August 2017, noting at the time that it was already tested to double vacuum pressure. Musk later hinted that the suit was inspired by video games Halo and Mass Effect. A dummy wearing the suit flew on the Falcon Heavy's test launch in February 2018, as well as the "Demo-1" unmanned Crew Dragon test mission in March 2019.
Reed explained Friday that the suits used on the mission are not designed for extra-vehicular activity. That means they're designed with the capsule in mind, keeping the crew members safe and ensuring they have sufficient oxygen, temperatures are at suitable levels, and atmospheric pressure is within the correct boundaries.
But beyond maintaining vital signs, the suit has some smart technical features that make it more an extension of the Crew Dragon. The suit plugs into the seat, enabling communication through the helmet and ensuring the system is kept aware of vital signs.
The suit consists of a single piece, ensuring gloves and other elements can't fly away. Internally, it has two layers, a bladder layer that contains the atmospheric pressure and an outer layer that offers fire protection and holds the suit together.
When Behnken and Hurley step into the Crew Dragon on May 27, they'll be wearing a highly advanced piece of kit.
The Inverse analysis – Data collection has been key throughout the Crew Dragon program. When the "Ripley" dummy launched on the March 2019 mission, it was fitted with sensors to help understand how the body may react to flight. This formed part of the wealth of data collected throughout development that also included the SuperDraco thruster tests, the parachute deployments and the in-flight abort test.
As the Crew Dragon suit is not designed for extra-vehicular activity, it's unlikely the first SpaceX astronauts to go to Mars would have work the same suit. But as with every step of the Crew Dragon process, every piece of information will help fuel the more ambitious plans like a city on Mars.