Early last month, NASA held a vote to decide what the outer shell design would look like for their new Z-2 Spacesuit. And apparently there’s a rave happening on Mars, because the winner looks like something right out of Tron.
NASA gave voters three themes to pick from for the contest: Biomimicry, Technology, and Trends in Society. ‘Biomimicry’ took cues from various forms of bio-luminescent aquatic life, showcasing wispy, curvy light trails on the front and back of the torso, a matte, scaley finish over the rest of the suit, and segmented pleats at the major joints. ‘Technology’ exhibits light-emitting patches surrounded by Luminex wire on the chest, lower back, and sides, as a way of using color-coding to identify different crew members. This suit uses exposed, rotating cuffs at the turning joints of the waist, hips, wrists, and legs, instead of relying on the fabric to stretch and turn with joint movement. ‘Trends in Society’ attempts to emulate a ‘sportswear’ feel. High-contrast gore pleats and lighted wiring in a curved, abstract pattern on the chest give this suit it’s distinctive look. Mobility-wise, ‘Trends in Society’ is a compromise between the rotating cuff joints and pleated fabric joints of the last two, incorporating both joint types into its design.
‘Technology’ won the vote, with a whopping 63% of all 233,431 votes cast. And yes, it does look like a bulky version of the Tron suits. Which may or may not be better than the Buzz Lightyear-esque look of the Z-1 Spacesuit. Personally, I would have voted for the technology suit.
The biggest change going from the Z-1 suit to the Z-2 was the decision to change the ‘soft’ chest piece for a fully-formed hard composite shell. Along with the addition of the hard composite chest piece, the shoulder and hip joints were redesigned to offer more durability needed for an ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) suit.The Z-2 is also the first suit to use 3D scans and 3D printed hardware to design and build the suit.
Since the Z-series is still in the prototype stage, it’s unlikely that the Z-2 will actually make it to space. Instead, it’s scheduled to undergo some stress testing at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to test its vaccuum pressure and mobility limits. The data from these tests will ultimately go into the design for the Z-3 Spacesuit.
Even though the Z-2 may not make it to space, the outer covering design of the suit is important for ground-based testing. According to the press release on NASA’s website:
The cover protects the lower layers and technical details from abrasion and snags during testing. It also serves to provide the suit with an aesthetic appeal. The cover layer on flight suits used for spacewalks performs many other important functions like protecting the spacewalker from micrometeorite strikes, the extreme temperatures in space and the harmful effects of radiation. These requirements drive selection of specific high-performance materials and design details that aren’t necessary at this stage in a prototype suit.
Testers have also set up a site at the Johnson Space Center to mimic the Martian terrain to further test the suits limits.
This second step in the Z-series EVA suits represents a large step on our path to putting a man on Mars. NASA’s plan to putting a man on Mars seems to be on-track for it’s proposed range of sometime in the 2030s.