How For All Mankind’s Costume Designer Crafted a Real-Life Spacesuit

From Apple TV+ to NASA.

Axiom Space

Science fiction has always revolved around the intersection of innovation and entertainment — how stories that exist on the precipice of new knowledge can be spun out and speculated upon. The stories have to be gripping, but so do the aesthetics, visuals, and scientific details.

Axiom Space kept this in mind when the company won the NASA contract for the next-generation spacesuit. The company needed to design an aesthetically appealing but still functional spacesuit, and turned to someone who had previously wed the two worlds on the small screen: Esther Marquis, costume designer on seasons three and four of For All Mankind, the Apple TV+ series following an alternate history where the space race never ended — requiring a number of new spacesuit designs for that divergent reality.

Just as science fiction needs to constantly innovate and recreate itself to provide a new and fresh look, Axiom knew that the spacesuit of yore needed a shakeup, not just technologically but aesthetically as well. After all, these are elements that will sit in the museums of the future. Shouldn’t they be just as interesting to look at as Darth Vader’s suit or the USS Enterprise?

“It's a fictional story, but it's couched in realism,” Marquis tells Inverse. “And so when we're looking at spacesuit design, as we were for season four, I was drawn to the historical aspects of suit design, I spent a lot of time researching it.” Season four of For All Mankind will follow the alternate history of NASA all the way up into the 2000s, so modern technology was a major reference point for the design.

The spacesuits seen in Season 3 of For All Mankind.


But while For All Mankind may have a new spacesuit for its fourth season, NASA hasn’t developed a new suit since the development of the Space Shuttle. The Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit is the answer to this issue, introducing a sleeker, more flexible structure. It will allow the astronauts on the upcoming lunar Artemis III mission to do what the Apollo crews could only dream of — lunge and squat.

It also uses a modular build to allow suits to fit all manner of astronauts, an essential element for the Artemis III mission that aims to put the first woman and person of color on the Moon. This is in opposition to the suits used on the International Space Station; in 2019, NASA cancelled the first all-female spacewalk on the International Space Station because it didn’t have enough suits to accommodate both astronauts Anne McLain and Christina Koch.

Because of the intense heat found on the Moon and for visibility’s sake, the suit has to be made in white. But a richly colored cover layer was commissioned from Marquis, allowing her knowledge of what looks good — and what could feasibly work in space — to translate from TV to the real thing.

Be they fictional or not, astronauts need to move, so her past experience directly helped with the Axiom assignment. “For All Mankind gave me a deeper understanding of spacesuits and the different elements that go into ... I want to say a piece of clothing, but it's equipment,” she says. “You're basically wearing a spacecraft.”

The Fabric of Space

The Axiom suit with Marquis’ cover layer on.

Axiom Space

Marquis got her start as a textile artist, working on movies like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Tree of Life, a detail-oriented role that established an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics and how they operate. “The clothing has to reflect all those different events that happen to the characters, it all has to reflect realistically,” she says. “You're constantly sort of doing this push and pull.”

That push and pull of realism and feasibility was reflected directly in her work for Axiom. “We're all searching for the best fabric solution to a design,” she says of both her work for For All Mankind and Axiom. “I felt like, ‘Oh, I wonder if that type of fabric I'm looking for has been developed yet.’ Sometimes my requests are ahead of their time.” Because of proprietary information, Marquis couldn’t get into specifics about fabrics.

Despite the surprising overlap between designing for TV space and outer space, Marquis was still stunned by the specifications needed even just for a cover layer. “I wasn’t quite expecting the different sort of intricacies that I had to address. But this is what you get when you work with the real deal,” she says. There were branding and aesthetic elements to be added, but safety was also a big factor. “When somebody's in a suit, they're attached to a life support system,” she says. “If something happens to that individual, even on Earth, they have to be able to get that suit off really quickly. That was one element that I had to address.”

This is just one instance of what you may think is an obvious element of spacesuit design — function trumping form at every point. “When you're designing a space suit for TV and film, you've got more leeway, you can address all those aesthetics,” she says. “But here, the form and function of that suit was really bearing down on the design. The designer in me wanted to break out.”

Life Imitates Art

The Axiom suit prioritized flexibility, so the cover layer had to as well.

Axiom Space

Axiom may be innovating the world of space travel, but Marquis has been innovating the world of spacesuit design, occasionally even pre-empting obstacles the engineers behind the suit would face. “There were a couple of times when I turned to the suit designers, ‘You know what? that's the same question we had designing the suit in season four. It was really this eye-opening kind of moment. It's like, ‘Oh, my God, you had the same problems we did.’”

“The remarkable thing about the Axiom Space suit is its flexibility, the Cover Layer needed to reinforce that attribute,” she says. “And so, form follows function. The patterning of the suit allows for the greatest flexibility. That requirement was an integral component to the design of For All Mankind season four’s suit.”

Both For All Mankind and Axiom are trying to speculate where space exploration can go from here, and often that’s just as confusing in the lab as it is in the writers’ room. “With every step, they're learning something, and then they're improving on it in the next iteration. But you have to take it step by step,” Marquis says. “I have the deepest respect for the individuals who put the engineering together. That suit is remarkable.”

The Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, much like the For All Mankind spacesuit, will be the subject of millions of eyes as well as the life support for Earth’s boldest and bravest. It should be given thought in every factor, from basic safety to fashion, and Axiom found the one person most qualified to do just that.

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