From the sleek touch-screen blue of the SpaceX Crew Dragon cockpit to the clean lines of the new gear the astronauts suited up in for Saturday’s historic launch, America’s return to spaceflight looks a whole lot more slick than it did during the opening decades of NASA’s milestone-studded history.
Even a glance at the crisp white suits that Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley donned to christen the Dragon’s human transport era reveals just how far the 2020 version of space couture has come in the short years since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. As it turns out, there’s a really cool reason for that — and it comes straight from the movies.
SpaceX boss Elon Musk wanted America’s new era of public-private partnership in spaceflight to evoke more of a spiffy image to capture the public’s imagination, as The New York Times recently reported. So they worked with longtime superhero movie costume designer Jose Fernandez from 2016 onward to get the look right first — and then reverse-engineered Fernandez’s creation to meet the utilitarian demands of protecting space-bound astronauts.
If you’ve seen a DC or Marvel movie in the past 10 years, you’ve seen Fernandez’s costume work. A sculptor who got his start with 1984’s Gremlins, Fernandez’ lengthy superhero résumé includes Ben Affleck’s Batsuit in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in X2: X-Men United, costume work for Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in Thor, and tons more creations in films like Batman Returns, Marvel’s Avengers, and Captain America: Civil War (for which Fernandez’ Ironhead Studio worked on Black Panther’s costume).
In addition to work on Wonder Woman’s armor in BvS, one of Fernandez’ big achievements for the film was designing a neck cowl that would allow Affleck to turn his head in the Batsuit. That bendable technology turned up again, this time to meet far more exacting standards, in the SpaceX astronauts’ suit design, which NYT reports features articulated joints that allow the suits to have a slimmer profile — while offering a greater range of motion than their NASA predecessors.
According to Fernandez in a 2016 interview with Bleep, Musk wanted a SpaceX suit design that would give the astronauts a sleek, all-business look. “He [Musk] kept saying, ‘Anyone looks better in a tux, no matter what size or shape they are,’ and when people put this space suit on, he wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tux. You look heroic in it. It’s an iconic thing [to] be a part of,” Fernandez explained.
It’s significant to point out that Fernandez’s SpaceX creation isn’t designed to fulfill high-exposure duties outside the cabin. That, of course, allows the suits to ditch lots of the internal support systems that astronauts rely on for spacewalks or, if NASA’s Artemis mission stays the course, leisurely strolls on the lunar surface.
Late last year, NASA revealed an early prototype of the new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) suit (shown above) that will accompany Artemis astronauts on their journeys outside the cockpit. And while they do look cool in red, white, and blue, it’s easy to tell these suits still share their DNA with those big, bulbous getups dating all the way back to Apollo 11’s Lunar Extravehicular Visor Assembly (LEVA) suit. Alas, being a hero in space does still come with plenty of real-world limitations. But at least Fernandez’s cool white Dragon suits are taking astronauts one small step in the right fashion direction.