Space suits have never been the pinnacle of chic. The microwavable-popcorn-bag silhouettes are anything but flattering, and don’t get me started on the helmets and footwear. But if Elon Musk and a couple of other male billionaires reaching for the stars succeed in making over conventional space wear, the future of celestial fashion will be more James Bond than Buzz Lightyear. One day, we may even hear someone on Mars screech, “Who are you wearing?”
Musk, who, as the founder of SpaceX, dreams of putting a white picket fence on Mars by 2029, wants his space suits to look “badass.” The eccentric entrepreneur turned to special effects maestro and Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez, who created wardrobes for Avengers: Age of Ultron and multiple X-Men films, to finesse the look of the suits worn on his Crew Dragon’s debut voyage to the International Space Station in 2020. Side note: Musk’s team collaborated with NASA on the technical design, but he wasn’t leaving the bells and whistles to the aeronautical engineers.
The result? An intergalactic tuxedo. Musk reportedly name-checked the formal wear as inspiration and told Fernandez, “Anyone looks better in a tux, no matter what size or shape they are.” (Finally, one thing Musk and I can agree on.) SpaceX’s white space suit, with its black accent panels and matching helmet, also nods to a fencing uniform for Bond—more bespoke than baggy. But before you credit Musk with inventing a flattering, body-con space suit, know that this uniform is not meant for exploration outside a spaceship—it’s an in-flight suit. More on that distinction later.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, a puckish septuagenarian Brit worth more than $5 billion, prefers a “sexy” take on the space suit. He designated athletic-wear giant Under Armour the “exclusive technical space wear partner” on a deep blue jumpsuit with gold piping that looks serviceable for the first Olympian in orbit—though hardly “wow” to a fashion writer. Patented tech-forward fabrics like SpinIt and Nomex regulate moisture and temperature, while UA’s own patented material Clone (originally used in a boxing boot) boosts flexibility in the knees and elbows. And, as someone who doesn’t put out her garbage without first applying lipstick, I have to applaud the flashy metallic pocket on the thigh, created to “stow personal items.”
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Jeff Bezos, who rocketed beyond Earth’s orbit last July with his first Blue Origin mission, has yet to voice his vision for a space suit. That’s not shocking when you consider that the 58-year-old founded an online bookstore and once had a penchant for blousy blue oxfords and knife-pleated khakis. His style evolution from approachable geek with dad curves to buff dude who dons velvet Gucci is mostly credited to his midlife divorce and flashy new girlfriend, entertainment journalist Lauren Sánchez. Perhaps she will weigh in on the space suit makeover? For the most recent Blue Origin jaunt, Bezos’s crew wore shiny royal-blue zip-up flight suits, which are, in essence, expensive onesies with cool patches.
Ultimately, though, the privatization of space will be a good thing for cosmic couture. NASA has long overseen the arc of design and technology when it comes to space suit innovations. In fashionspeak, imagine Coco Chanel reigning over the iconic brand for more than a century. New ideas—especially from outside creatives who aren’t hung up on aeronautical logistics—could refresh the Apollo template.
Still, you would think that all this talk of sexing up space suits would infuriate engineers and other experts. After all, a proper NASA space suit—one that can hold up in actual space—costs about $250 million to build from scratch, takes 45 minutes to get into, and weighs about 280 pounds. (As a comparison, the couture gown designed by Area and worn by gymnast Simone Biles to the annual Met Gala last year weighed 98 pounds.) The garb must protect the wearer from radiation and particles moving as fast as 18,000 miles per hour. It’s pressurized and can endure temperatures ranging from 250 degrees Fahrenheit down to -250 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s even a built-in water fountain to hydrate parched astronauts.
It’s literally a life-support system on a hanger. Does it really need sex appeal, too?
“Some astronauts might think that staying alive is sexy,” says Dr. Cathleen Lewis, who is the curator of international space programs and space suits at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Lewis has been studying, collecting, and preserving space suits for almost 40 years. She can even confirm that NASA sent its Apollo space suits to the dry cleaners back in the 1970s. Lewis does concede that conformity in space suit design deadens the thrill. “You don’t want to run into the gray-flannel-suit syndrome,” she says. “You want to excite people about space suits and all the possibilities.”
Her analogy is spot-on. Fashion and space have always been an odd couple. Picture a leggy, transcendent supermodel in stilettos on the arm of a scruffy scientist wearing shoes that squeak—you get the idea. Nevertheless, these two polar-opposite entities have been winking at each other ever since the first jaunt to the moon in 1969. Case in point: when Neil Armstrong descended the capsule ladder in a bulky A7L space suit, the astronaut was wearing a bra suitable for Dolly Parton—well, make that 21 layers of stretchy, supportive material.
Thank Playtex, the maker of ladies’ undergarments and a division of the International Latex Company, a Delaware-based manufacturing outfit that is now known as ILC Dover, which still creates space suits for NASA. The story goes that NASA put out a call in 1961 for companies to bid on the contract to design the first space suit. Mobility and flexibility were key. The astronauts had to be able to walk, bend, twist, and turn—much like a woman corralling a toddler while wearing a girdle. ILC, with help from the engineering designs used at Playtex, won the bid. “The engineers and ladies at ILC Dover who designed and sewed the space suits for Apollo 11 were holding their breath as they watched Neil Armstrong taking his first step,” says Danielle LaFleur, who is an engineering technician at the company.
LaFleur, incidentally, has a background in costumes, like Musk’s designer Fernandez. At ILC Dover’s Houston office, she’s the voice in the room pushing for a certain shade of blue or a distinctive reflective feature to be worn on the exterior (or coverlayer) of a space suit. “I try to add special touches wherever I can with colors, textures, finishes, logos, hardware, reflective features, and interesting patterning,” she says. Sometimes, LaFleur’s proposed accents are vetoed by the more technical folks. She doesn’t push back: “The space suit’s job is to keep a person safe and alive in space, so the aesthetics will always come second to that.”
In the world of fashion—where survival hinges on being of the moment and only reputations die—space-influenced style has long been a staple. In 1964, the French designer (and former engineer) André Courrèges revealed his Space Age collection, which included goggles, PVC skirts, and white go-go boots. Space exploration continued to inspire Courrèges throughout the rest of the ’60s, and he was eventually rewarded with an invite to NASA’s mission control at Cape Canaveral. Ralph Lauren’s 1994 Polo Jeans Co. NASA jacket was the first literal take on astronaut wear, but Dior design director John Galliano took it a step further at Paris Fashion Week in 2006, when he wore an haute couture space suit that would have disintegrated on Mars.
Ten years later, street-wear label Supreme aped the NASA logo for a puffy jacket and made the four-letter government agency the epitome of cool. Since then, brands from skate sneaker Vans to Old Navy to Target have licensed the logo for footwear, tees, and even fanny packs. A nylon NASA-emblazoned belt bag by Balenciaga currently sells for $895; the French label’s 100 percent cotton oversize hoodie with NASA patches can be had for a mere $1,150. “It’s unbelievable how popular we’ve become when it comes to branding,” says Bert Ulrich, who is NASA’s multimedia liaison and oversees the agency’s collaborations with film and TV. In the past five years, the number of requests to license the logo for merchandise has shot from 20 to 40 each month to 900.
NASA itself could use a refresh. The agency—which has spent more than $420 million on space suit development since 2007—continues to face criticism for relying on decades-old designs and missing deadlines for rollouts. An August 2021 report by its inspector general noted that space suits for lunar missions won’t be “ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest.” (The Artemis moon landing originally scheduled for late 2024 was officially postponed.)
A month later, in response to the report, NASA issued a call for bids on the contract to design and manufacture the space suits. Remember: this is how ILC got into the game six decades ago. ILC Dover has been NASA’s main supplier since then. The space suits needed, technically known as exploration extravehicular mobility units, are worn outside a capsule—unlike the flight suits described above. Still, no matter who wins the contract, the competition among billionaires is good for forwarding overall design. “It’s exciting because right now you have all of these new companies, like SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, developing suits for their own spacecrafts and specific explorations,” says Lewis.
Apparently, one billionaire also wants to help NASA with its next-gen space suit. “SpaceX could do it if need be,” Musk tweeted when the agency released the report last summer. If the suit comes with a built-in martini shaker, we’ll know exactly whom to thank. •