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Going to Infinity and Beyond: 13 More Space Suits That Could Help Inspire NASA Engineers

By Rob Payne | Lists | December 25, 2012 |

By Rob Payne | Lists | December 25, 2012 |

Despite the relative lack of funding for NASA and other assorted dedicted advanced scientific and technological research agencies, 2012 has been a particularly good news year for space junkies. We’ve touched on the somewhat dispiriting cancellation of the space shuttle program, but in 12-month span that included the Curiosity Rover on mars, sky dives from space, the discoveries of diamond planets and the God (Damn) Particle, and the fact that we’re all still here after December 21, 2012, human advancement has rarely looked better. The same, however, can’t necessarily be said for the aesthetic value of NASA’s most recent upgrade in space suit fashion, which appears to owe as much to Disney as future nerds will when the next Star Wars movie doesn’t suck wholesale.

Originally reported on this summer but given new prominence after being named one of TIME’s most “Best Inventions of 2012,” NASA’s Z-1 space suit prototype has become Internet famous for being more than just the next step in our space-walk evolution. As The Mary Sue points out (via The Hollywood Reporter), the Z-1 doesn’t only offer better flexibility and a more efficient oxygen supply system, it’s also history’s most expensive meta-textual reference to a series of children’s films:


NASA’s Z-1 Prototype provides luxurious comfort, as well as enhanced life-saving capabilities.

Still not seeing the connection? What if we do a side-by-side comparison photo…?


NASA’s Z-1 Prototype and Pixar’s Buzz Lightyear, can you which is which?

Apparently this has nothing to do with NASA and Disney teaming up to provide educational opportunities, or their earlier videos called “mission logs” starring Mr. Lightyear, but that’s a level of coincidence I’m not comfortable accepting. Indeed, the look of the Z-1 will no doubt change before it becomes a fully functioning part of the space program in 2017 — if it becomes a fully functioning part of the space program — but certainly NASA engineers won’t rest on their laurels and will be looking to improve on their own designs as soon as they can afford to do so. Because of that, and the technicians’ clear love for cinema, here are 13 More Movie Space Suits that Could Inspire Future NASA Scientists. Enjoy!

No matter how one feels about the final product of Ridley Scott’s return to xenomorph territory (I, for one, thoroughly enjoy it), the space suits are one of the film’s biggest issues. After all, the suits must be so uncomfortable that supposedly brilliant scientists, after traveling hundreds of lightyears from Earth over several years, risk suffocating on an alien world instead of learning anything about it by almost immediately removing their helmets. But, hey, they’re pretty damn slick, and that’s what matters most, right? Before the movie was released, some people criticized the neon orange piping spider-webbed all over the suits, but that’s probably one of the most accurate pieces of tech in the entire film. Don’t take my word for it, trust PBS’s coverage of the MIT-originated Space Activity Suit.

Ridley Scott definitely had more critical (if not financial) success with his first foray into science fiction horror way back in the 1970s, but that doesn’t mean his science was any better at the time. Whereas the Prometheus suits seem perhaps overly designed (but so, so pretty), the suits from the Nostromo barely seem functionable even in the lower gravity of the decidedly non-Earth-like planet LV-426. Granted, these are designed for the galaxy’s blue collar workers, so their hourly wage probably prevents them from complaining about how every outer-ship job takes at least twice as long. The vague touch of samurai armor a nice one and NASA shouldn’t discard that so easily, but the rest of these things clearly won’t work for anything but the most lackadaisical space walk.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Leave it to Stanley Kubrick to show audiences one of the first space suits desined for both style and utility. Or perhaps that credit ought to go to Arthur C. Clarke? Regardless, the suits here clearly useful for most any job that might need to be done in, on, or around a rocket ship as it sails through space at varying speeds. We see it used equally as well in zero-G and wherever that palatial mansion with Versailles-like qualities actually exists. The biggest downside here is the lack of a glass bubble helmet to provide a mostly 360-degree view, which would come in handy whenever space fetuses suddenly show up out nowhere. The solid warm colors, especially Bowman’s orange here, isn’t my favorite choice, but we’ll see later that isn’t uncommon for space travel. (For some reeason?)

Another cerebral sci-fi thriller, Danny Boyle’s is far less concerned about technicalities even in spite of having a famous space consultant on hand. The spirit of his science is sound if not his accuracy, and in that light the gold-plated suits used to help insulate space walkers from the heat and radiation of the nearing Sun is tolerable. They also look fantastic, providing originality and enough mystery to ignite the imagination as to how exactly how they might work. But that appreciation could just be leftover thought patterns from when previous generations chose gold as the money du jour, cherishing the substance above all else. This is downright pimpin’, and NASA could always use more street cred.

Star Trek: First Contact
The Star Trek series isn’t really known for extended excursions into the vaccuum of space, but the various crews have ventured beyond the Enterprise’s cushy interior from time to time. Without question, the best suit of that bunch belongs to the one and only movie featuring the franchise’s answer to zombies, First Contact. These provide the style and obvious efficiencies of those from 2001, with more modern angles and muted colors to let the aliens know we are, if anything, a fashion-conscious and self-aware species. Again, the lack of a bubble helmet makes this design just short of perfectly utilitarian, but looking cool was never supposed to have a point.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The second ever Trek movie did a lot of things right, enough to save the franchise from the leaden Motion Picture and then doom it decades later when writers stopped having ideas, opting instead to simply copy Khan’s revenge driven formula. But one curiosity that, thankfully, no other movie or TV show in the franchise — much less the non-canonical rip-offs — tried to duplicate was the space suit designs featured in the opening scenes on the Botany Bay. The fact that they are somehow between the clunkiness of Cold War-era sci-fi and 2001’s sleekness (despite coming after both) is forgivable, what isn’t are the handles on each suit’s chestplate. Why, oh why, in a galaxy teeming with sentient life that is physically stronger than human beings, would the Federation deign to put actual handholds on the front of their space suits? Dear NASA Engineers: Do Not Do This!

“Star Trek” (The Original Series)
To be honest, this episode escapes my knowledge, but in my Google Image searching for Khan and Contact, these gems caught my eye. This is the Cold War clunkiness I mentioned, infused with some 60s psychedlia and non-sense for good measure. I’m no scientician myself, so these suits could be the best designed of the bunch, but the nebulous colored blobs on the glittery silver connote camp in the worst way. But, hey, no handles; NASA could definitely do worse. (See above.)

For a show that updated and modified Gene Roddenberry’s concept of the space western to be much more literal, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi masterpiece ventured out into the black beyond his ship’s hull more often in 13 episodes than in (probably) all three seasons of “Trek.” Doing so featured a more workman-like aesthetic similar to Alien, which makes sense for a show about “low class” celestial journey men and women. But the suits in the ‘Verse aren’t nearly as bizarrely useless as their filmic forebears, they may be cheap but you can walk around without toppling over just fine.

Another show that owes a deep debt of gratitude to the original “Star Trek,” Matt Groening’s and David X. Cohen’s sci-fi animated sitcom is one of the few examples in pop culture that combines the absurd possibilities of Clarke’s philosophy that “any sufficient technology is indistinguishable from magic” with legitimate science, or at least legitimate scientific possibilities. Marrying hard sci-fi with hard science was clearly the inspiration for adding bubble helmets (finally!) to pretty basic space suits — nothing too disimilar from NASA’s own suits dating back to the Apollo missions, with that same orange color from 2001. Hey, wait a tic, something about Fry looks awfully familiar here…

“Doctor Who” (David Tennant)
Who knew David Tennant was the spitting image for the out-of-time, starbound Philip J. Fry? That automatically rates this suit higher for its likely usefulness, but also its inherent geek cool. Though, this is undoubtedly not safe for space walks, just for lounging in the TARDIS or holodeck on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Still, there’s something almost too familiar about this look, as though I’ve seen it over and over and over again? Oh, right, it’s just the same flight suit that actual NASA astronauts have worn since the inception of the space shuttle program, as seen in such Hollywood blockbusters as Armageddon. Well, shit. This design obviously isn’t going anywhere, much less beyond the infinite. Sorry for wasting everyone’s time with this entry, let’s see what another Doctor wears during his space adventuring…

“Doctor Who” (Matt Smith)
HA! No.

Okay, as silly as that was, nothing can ever really top the over-the-top ridonkitude (it’s a word, just don’t espect Merriam-Webster to add it anytime soon) as, well, pretty much everything in Jane Fonda’s sci-fi camp classic. Like Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw before her, apparently Barbarella’s space suit is super uncomfortable. Why else would she get hurry to get undressed in low gravity rather than wait to do so while standing firmly on two legs? Granted, very few movie fans complain about the de-suiting scene in this movie. Maybe if we ever reach the absolute pinnacle of science equalling magic Barbarella’s suits will work, but until then any NASA engineer basing his work on this movie should be avoided at all costs and is a danger to society. They also probably smell.

After combing through the back catalogue of science fiction films, of which only the choicest ideas are shared here, it seems like maybe movies aren’t the best way to go for NASA’s development process. In fact, it’s quite clear that movies are almost entirely dependent on real scientists to design practical and practicable space suits and without them fail utterly. That’s probably for the best, all things considered. But that does leave one film, more a spy drama than a sci-fi epic, that NASA should fundamentally not ignore in the future. Of course, I mean Moonraker and its laser-firing backpacks. The suits themselves are pretty much exactly NASA’s Apollo/shuttle suits, but with the added feature of backpacks that fire lasers. Lasers in space, on backpacks. If it’s good enough for Curiosity, it’s good enough for our next Neil Armstrongs and John Glenns. Lasers, NASA. Lasers.

You know I’m right.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He’s fine with the Z-1 but he’d be even finer with it if there were LASERS.