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New designs may lack the flare of the Z-1, but improve technically

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2012 ignited a frenzy of praise, criticism, and just plain hype when it announced that it was redesigning its Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit.  Now that suit has been replaced and the process begins anew as NASA and its contractor push the design closer to field deployment.

I. Advancing the Spacesuit

Spacesuits, commonly known as extravehicular activity (EVA) suits, allowed astronauts to operate outside spacecraft and space stations while in orbit or on the Moon.  NASA's spacesuits won praise for their solid performance and relatively low costs -- attributes that came thanks in part to their production by a private sector contractor.

However, they also earned some criticism for their slow evolution.

EMU Suit
The EMU suit was used for Space Shuttle EVA sessions.

Derived from the Apollo programs A7C/L/LB series suits, the EMU suit was in use from 1981 until 2011, tweaked at times, but remaining largely unchanges over its thirty year tenure.  The EMU suits were produced by International Latex Corporation (ILC) Dover -- a Frederica, Delaware contractor that was founded by Playtex (women's undergarments) inventor Abram Spanel.  The suits were codesigned by veteran propeller maker Hamilton Standard, a company that is today part of United Technologies Corp. (UTX).

The 2012 redesign was never fielded, but brought ambitious changes to the tried-and-true EMU.  Most notably, it was a fully flexible suit, offering new zero-gravity (zero-G) work opportunities.

The Z-1 prototype
The Z-1 prototype, aka the "advanced EMU" or "Buzz Lightyear suit"

At 126 lb (57 kg) the much more flexible Z-1 suit was slightly heavier than the EMU -- a suit that weighed 109 lb (49.4 kg).  However the Z-1 allowed a so-called "Suitport", basically a miniature port that opened into a suit hanging off the side of the spacecraft or space station.  This development was in part enabled by the fact that the suit was designed to operate at 84 pressure settings -- including pressures from 0 and 8.4 psi (0 to 0.571 atm).

The EMU suit traditionally operated at 4.3 psi (0.293 atm).  In preparation for a spacewalk an EMU users had to first spend 24 hours in a cabin that had been dropped from 14.7 psi (1.000 atm) to 10.2 psi (0.694 atm).  The user then prebreathed for 45 minutes.  

Z-1 Suit prototype 2
An astronaut picks up a rock, showing off the flexibility of the new suit.

While astronauts will likely still have to follow a similar spacecraft/space station depressurization in lead up to a Z Series spacewalk, if they had to evacuate into the suits directly from standard cabin pressure (14.7 psi), it wouldn't be catastrophic.  Further, the lengthy prebreathing exercise is eliminated and astronauts face a decreased risk of decompression sickness.

By eliminating the need for pre-breathing and the need for a dedicated decompression chamber, astronauts could signficantly decrease the weight of future spacecraft or spacestations, making up for whatever marginal increase in weight the Z Series suit brought.

II. The Next Generation -- Bye Bye Buzz Lightyear, Hello Gray

The Z-2, the successor to the Z-1, has just been announced, with the public getting to vote on a handful of competing stylings to the suit's exterior.  Like the Z-1, the new Z-2 features three central components -- the soft upper torso, soft lower torso, and hemispherical dome helmet, along with four assemblies, one for each limb (the glove and boot assemblies).

The Z-1 suit was developed by ILC Dover.  For the Z-2 suit a cash-strapped NASA allocate a decent chunk of financing to the project -- $4.4M USD.  ILC Dover faced competition from David Clark Company, Inc. -- a microphone maker that at times moonlighted as a suit designer.  David Clark produced the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) -- the pressured orange "pumpkin suit" that was worn by later Space Shuttle astronauts during takeoffs and landings.

In April 2013 NASA announced ILC Dover won the contract [PDF].

Now, roughly a year later, ILC Dover is showing the first fruits of its labor on the second phase design.  The Z-2 suit makes certain concessions -- notably a hard composite upper torso section -- in order to achieve the durability needed for real use in space.  The hard torso is still a significant step forward over the EMU as NASA says that it will be the "most conformal and re-sizeable hard upper torso suit built to date."

The Z-2 is thus expected to have less shoulder and back mobility than the Z-1, but still have similar lower leg mobility.

The boot assembly is also beefed up and brought up to full pressure.

Emerging rapid prototyping technologies -- namely 3-D laser scanning and 3-D printing -- were put to use for the first time in a major EVA suit design project, allowing ILC Dover to deliver the suit ahead of schedule.

ILC Dover collaborated with design and engineering students at Philadelphia University which submitted its own artistic suit stylings [1, 2] as part of a Dec. 2012 (Fall 2012 semester) design contest.  The cream of that crop survived to the current phase and ILC Dover and NASA has put them up to a public vote.

The vote on the new designs -- "Biomimickry", "Technology", and "Trends in Society" will last through April 30.  For fans of the original green and white styled suit (that looked rather like Toy Story hero "Buzz Lightyear") sadly that is not an option.

Biomimickry -- Design 1
Z-2 "Biomimickry" (Design 1 of 3)

Many of the designs incoporate biolumniscent wire flourishes that don't just look cool, but may also provide mild lighting while performing space duties.

Z2 Technology
Z2 Technology seriesZ-2 "Technology" (Design 2 of 3)

Voting runs through April 15 (Tax Day) and the winning design will be announced April 30.

Z2 Trends in Society
Trends in SocietyZ-2 "Trends in Society" (Design 3 of 3)

ILC Dover expects to deliver a finished suit in November 2014. This will allow NASA time to start testing the next-generation Portable Life Support System (PLSS) which has been under design in-house via NASA's major Next Generation Life Support (NGLS) project [PDF].  More specifically, NASA will test various competing ideas for the suit's Variable Oxygen Regulator (VOR) and the Rapid Cycle Amine (RCA) swing bed.  The VOR provides the astronaut with a pressurized, breathable environment, while the RCA scrubs the carbon dioxide the astronaut exhales from that environment.

A next-generation life support module will accompany the new suit. [Image Source: NASA]

NASA is currently weighing a disposable lithium hydroxide (LiOH) canister based scrubbing design for the VOR versus a metal hydroxide design.  The former design can be quickly replaced, but adds to launch weight and costs.  The latter system takes time and electricity to "recharge", but can be reused multiple times, potentially cutting launch weight and costs (both in the cost of additional fuel and in the cost of replacement).

The suits will be tested next year at NASA's human-rated vacuum chamber and the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.  After that, by 2020 they will be tested fully with the finished PLSS in a more intense thermal/vacuum chamber that simulations a space environment.

III. SpaceX + Advanced EMU = NASA's Future of Manned Flight

NASA is expected to regain its own domestic launch options before that time. Elon Musk's SpaceX is striving to have a human-rated resuable Dragon capsule, part of the company's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) project, ready by between next year and 2017.  The next-generation Dragon capsule is expected to operate alongside the Z-2's finished successor and likely be retrofitted to feature suitports once the finished suit is fielded sometime in 2020 or later.

SpaceX has 50 successful commercial launches scheduled or completed -- two-thirds of which come from commercial customers.  It is currently fielding its latest and greatest Falcon9 v1.1, one of the most powerful commercial rockets ever produced.  The upcoming Falcon Heavy -- set to lift the human-rated Dragon -- will be more powerful than any other rocket produced by man, save perhaps the Moon-rated Saturn V used by the Apollo program.

A year ago from this month SpaceX performed its third succesful resupply run to the International Space Station (ISS), using a Falcon9 and its unmanned, robotic Dragon capsule.  That launch suffered some minor hiccups, but SpaceX is believed to have ironed out these issues.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk is planning a manned Dragon launch using a Falcon Heavy rocket sometime in 2015-2017. [Image Source: AP]

SpaceX remains private and despite its substantial commercial revenue is also deeply subsidized by Mr. Musk's own fortune.  In June 2013 the visionary leader quipped that a SpaceX public offering wouldn't be in the works until the "Mars Colonial Transporter is flying regularly."

But the statement isn't just a joke.  Elon Musk is actually prototyping a successor to the manned Dragon, dubbed the "Red Dragon", which will first perform automated Martian mining and eventually take humans to Mars.  So get ready to invest by around 2030-2040.

[All Images other than the SpaceX one are from NASA/ILX Dover]

Sources: NASA's Johnson Space Center -- Suit Vote, NASA - Advanced Suit Development News and Features, Philadelphia University [1], [2]

Comments     Threshold

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Where Is The Flag?
By creathir on 4/1/2014 7:10:08 AM , Rating: 1
If my tax dollars are paying for the thing, I at least want my country to be represented on it.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By FITCamaro on 4/1/14, Rating: -1
RE: Where Is The Flag?
By melgross on 4/1/2014 12:09:02 PM , Rating: 2
Uh, no. Racism is about race. Don't people understand what words mean these days?

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By littlebitstrouds on 4/1/2014 3:21:49 PM , Rating: 1
Defended like a true racist! Deflect, deflect, deflect.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Jeffk464 on 4/1/2014 5:43:48 PM , Rating: 3
Like Adam Carolla says, you use to have to really earn the name racist. Nowadays if you mispronounce chimichanga at the local mexican restaurant your likely to be called one.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By KCjoker on 4/1/2014 6:14:45 PM , Rating: 2
Get it on, got to get it on, no choice but to get it ON!

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Schadenfroh on 4/1/2014 11:37:10 PM , Rating: 2
Unless you are on, admit to it in writing, and then get called a liar!
The courthouse where Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis presides has been abuzz over the action he has taken against a potential juror when he questioned why she wrote things like quote “African-Americans, Hispanics and Haitians” are “the three people I like the least.”

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Jeffk464 on 4/2/2014 1:18:55 AM , Rating: 2
I always figured that was a guaranteed way to get out of hurry duty.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Jeffk464 on 4/2/2014 1:20:02 AM , Rating: 2
Eh jury

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Jeffk464 on 4/1/2014 5:38:26 PM , Rating: 2
Uhm, I think that might have been sarcasm.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By GotThumbs on 4/1/2014 12:06:49 PM , Rating: 2
Totally Agree.

Credit where credit is due.

~Best wishes

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By senecarr on 4/1/2014 1:32:24 PM , Rating: 5
I'd rather we get Congress members to wear patches with their sponsors on them first.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By ender707 on 4/1/2014 10:18:48 PM , Rating: 2
Brought to you by Carl's Jr.

RE: Where Is The Flag?
By Jeffk464 on 4/1/2014 5:40:15 PM , Rating: 2
If they're going to have the illuminated lines, they should have used the same patter as in Tron.

By Senju on 4/1/2014 7:11:09 AM , Rating: 2
What was that guys name in MASS EFFECT? Grunt? The suit reminds me of him.

RE: Grunt?
By splatter85 on 4/1/2014 11:49:27 AM , Rating: 2
Why can't they make suits like Shepard's?

RE: Grunt?
By MrBlastman on 4/1/2014 12:00:28 PM , Rating: 1
Mass Effect needs to disappear. The first game was okay. The background fiction was neat but the plot was kind of canned and on rails. The second one began interestingly enough but quickly spiraled out of control into something contrived and then the final invasion sequence... meh. Don't get me started on how bad that was.

I haven't even bothered with the third game. No point, really. And from the sound of the designer (I have a friend who worked with him in the past), what he plans to do to the fourth will make it a steaming pile of sloth dung.

It's a shame. But I wouldn't blame the writers... once again it was soiled by poor game designers who thought they knew better.

RE: Grunt?
By Reclaimer77 on 4/1/2014 12:38:13 PM , Rating: 3
But without those games we wouldn't have the infamous TJ Laser, Space Scumbag!

One of the most funny game based series I've ever seen lol. Watch em all!

RE: Grunt?
By MrBlastman on 4/1/2014 10:09:28 PM , Rating: 2

Thanks. :)

RE: Grunt?
By Reclaimer77 on 4/2/2014 7:18:42 AM , Rating: 2
TJ Laser! Experts in lasers...and phasers!

I like the laser pistol
By stm1185 on 3/31/2014 11:08:55 PM , Rating: 3
Take that mars!

RE: I like the laser pistol
By Vytautas on 4/1/2014 12:41:18 AM , Rating: 2
That's probably a geologist hand drill.

RE: I like the laser pistol
By dayanth on 4/1/2014 9:27:22 AM , Rating: 2
Two Weeks!

Hah, rocks.
By Arkive on 4/1/2014 11:57:10 AM , Rating: 3
I like how the litmus test for a successful suit is the ability to pick up a rock. Seriously, we can send a robot to do that for a microscopic fraction of the research and testing that would have to be done to send a manned mission. I love space and space exploration...LOVE IT. But with all the problems facing us today the capital costs of a manned mission anywhere other than Earth orbit is ridiculous, and I can't believe more people aren't talking about how ridiculous it is.

RE: Hah, rocks.
By Jeffk464 on 4/1/2014 5:46:05 PM , Rating: 2
I think a robot can pretty much do everything better in such a foreign environment.

By Arkive on 4/1/2014 12:11:58 PM , Rating: 2
Am I the only one that thinks this suit looks too ridiculous to be real on this very coincidental date?

RE: Also...
By fic2 on 4/1/2014 1:18:47 PM , Rating: 2
I'm pretty sure it was based on one of the characters in Monsters, Inc.

By DT_Reader on 4/1/2014 4:40:33 PM , Rating: 2
So this new design is less flexible, but it makes up for that by being butt-ugly? Is that the takeaway from this article?

You failed to mention the pressure of the Z-2, or if it offers the "Suitport" of the Z-1. You claim it's an improved design over the Z-1, but then fail to say how it's improved. Oh, wait: "The boot assembly is also beefed up". Wow.

RE: What?
By Jeffk464 on 4/1/2014 5:48:27 PM , Rating: 2
The torso is less flexible but I think the arms and legs are suppose to be less encumbered. I'm not sure that looks should be a primary concern.

Not 50 launches
By Guspaz on 4/1/2014 1:05:01 AM , Rating: 3
SpaceX doesn't have 50 successful launches completed, they have 50 upcoming launches on their manifest.

They've completed 10 launches successfully; two Falcon 1s, five Falcon 9 v1.0, and three Falcon 9 v1.1.

By GotThumbs on 4/1/2014 12:05:14 PM , Rating: 2
because the dark grey suits will be less visible in space, unless the person has the sun or a white object behind their back.

Deep space is black and does not reflect, so why would you want to wear a dark, almost black suit.

Anyone watch Gravity? Try spotting a black suit in space.

Who's the dumbass who nixed the white suit option?

Functionality over fashion please.

April first
By CalaverasGrande on 4/1/2014 2:52:48 PM , Rating: 2
must be a joke

Public comments
By catavalon21 on 4/1/2014 6:39:18 PM , Rating: 2
With all due respect, why should I, or anyone else in the Public get to vote on how it looks? Ask the folks that have to wear it in space what they think. As for the rest of us? Why should we have any say in the matter?

Cannot Unsee
By SPOOFE on 4/1/2014 8:49:23 PM , Rating: 2
In the first image of the Z-1 it looks like it has cameltoe.

How's This Supposed to Help With Muslim Outreach?
By Arsynic on 4/1/14, Rating: 0
"A lot of people pay zero for the cellphone ... That's what it's worth." -- Apple Chief Operating Officer Timothy Cook

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