NASA astronauts who will head into orbit onboard Boeing’s new space taxi will wear lighter, sleeker, and more comfortable spacesuits than the bulky orange suits of the space shuttle era.
Yesterday, Jan. 26, Boeing unveiled the new “Boeing Blue” astronaut suits for the Starliner spacecraft. The suits are blue and weigh around 20 pounds each with their accessories such as an integrated shoe, compared to older astronaut gear that weighed 30 pounds, according to NASA officials.
The reveal is made as the space company continues moving toward flight tests of its spacecraft and launch systems that will haul astronauts to the International Space Station.
"It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it's simpler, which is always a good thing,” said astronaut Eric Boe in a statement, emphasizing the need for simplicity in the space attire.
Boe is among the four NASA astronauts who currently train to fly via the Starliner as well as the Dragon capsule of SpaceX, the assigned space taxi services to and from the ISS. The space vehicles are poised to start flying manned missions in the next year or after, NASA said.
Advances in the spacesuit include more flexible material, soft helmet, visor, and touchscreen-sensitive gloves incorporated into the suit instead of the hard, detachable versions from the past. Vents also allow the wearer to stay cooler but can still immediately pressurize the suit.
The Starliner suit lets water vapor pass out of it and away from the wearer, but retains air inside and thus promotes cooling without compromising safety, the statement added. The elbow and knee materials too provide more movement, while zippers allow adjustments to the suit’s shape during standing or sitting.
Both the Boeing suit and the one SpaceX is developing will assist in astronaut safety during an emergency in whatever part of the journey they are. However, they are not designed for spacewalks, as this will be assigned to large and bulky extravehicular mobility units that are already aboard the space lab.
This blue suit will instead serve as emergency backup to the capsule’s life support systems.
“If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit,” explained Richard Watson, NASA Commercial Crew Program’s subsystem manager for spacesuits, likening it to having a fire extinguisher in the cockpit of a plane.
Launching From U.S. Land
The United States has had years of relying on the Russian space agency’s Soyuz spacecraft for bringing its astronauts to and from ISS. The reliance is projected to continue longer than planned, with NASA’s Commercial Crew launching on Starliner to the ISS in the second half of 2018 at the earliest.
While money remains a challenge for the NASA program, Starliner has also faced interruptions through a design change related to the Outer Mold Line of the Starliner and the Atlas V design.
The updated schedule will then have a Pad Abort test happen at the White Sands test facility in January 2018, followed by an unmanned test mission June that year. The two-person crew mission dubbed as Boe-CFT was originally slated for April 2017.
Once the operational flights take place near 2018’s end, NASA’s deal with the Soyuz will serve as a backup plan in case the commercial fleet faces major issues.
NASA has previously awarded more contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the ISS, but in a recent development, it has proposed to buy additional Soyuz seats to take advantage of Russian plans of reducing crew size and as the supposed form of insurance in the face of commercial crew delays.