Much of the talk about Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos rocketing themselves into space earlier this month was focused on who would get there first. A better question to ask might be, “Who wore it best?”
Whether you’re inspired by the intrepid effort to turn space travel into a commercial activity or see it as a crass display of billionaire privilege, Branson and Bezos may have unintentionally created a new category in fashion, one that may interest a lot of men who grew up watching NASA missions and shows like Star Trek.
The pandemic may have put a dent in suit sales, but the future may be all about the space suit.
Branson’s Virgin Galactic announced about six months ago that Under Armour would serve as its “technical spacewear partner,” and I thought the cobalt blue results were . . . out of this world.
In a blog post Virgin Galactic published at the time, Under Armour’s design team said the suits had to be created with an eye towards temperature control, movement and comfort. Virgin Galactic’s instructions were also pretty specific in prioritizing function over fashion:
For the pilots’ suits, the design team followed a brief to create a non-pressurised spacesuit which not only aesthetically conveys the pilots’ role in Virgin Galactic’s mission, but which also practically supports their unique task of flying regularly at over three times the speed of sound into space and back.
Still, I feel there had to have been a nudge from Branson to ensure that the suits also conveyed a sense a conquering coolness, a confidence that matched the bravado necessary to become an amateur astronaut in the first place.
The Bezos-owned Blue Origin, meanwhile, dispensed with a traditional spacesuit for what the New York Times described as “light flight suits with a shiny sheen that resemble the jumpsuits worn by military pilots, or perhaps even a NASCAR driver’s racing suit.”
A more biting critique of the Blue Origin suits came from The Daily Beast, which said,
(Bezos’s) Blue Origin team picked an outfit that matches his Divorced Dad sensibilities: it’s a little Top Gun in its shape, tapered at the waist and butt. There’s a feather, his space company’s logo, stamped on the back of the jumpsuit, because…branding. There’s a rocket ship insignia patch on the front chest. It looks like a Halloween costume for the super-rich.
Not to be undone, Elon Musk hired a costume designer best known for his work on “Batman v Superman,” “The Fantastic Four,” and “The Avengers,” for his company’s SpaceX suits.
In this case, the suits were customized to each astronaut’s body type, and are a sleek white that Space called a refreshing change from the “old-school ‘pumpkin suits.’” (They also got a “five-star rating” from actual NASA veterans).
Right now most of us probably don’t think of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin or SpaceX as “brands” in the sense of fashion companies. And yet, Under Armour has already expanded upon its work with Branson’s firm by creating a capsule collection that any of us can take home and wear where staying firmly rooted on planet Earth.
Though only a few weeks old, the company told RagTrader the most popular item in the capsule collection is the Unisex UA x Virgin Galactic Flight Jacket. To my eyes, though, it looks kind of like most ordinary zip-up jackets, and is more like what you might imagine buying at a gift shop after touring an exhibition or taking an amusement park ride of some sort.
On IEEE Spectrum, a magazine primarily aimed at engineers, you can see a fascinating and well-researched look back at how astronauts have been outfitted over the past 50 years. This includes space suits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Z2, a work-in-progress that the publication dubbed “explorer wear.”
Improved bearings and joints allow an astronaut to walk more comfortably. And the suit is designed to operate at a higher pressure than those currently used on the International Space Station, which will allow future Mars explorers to suit up without having to go through a lengthy depressurization procedure.
The difference between NASA’s space suits and those created for Branson and Bezos, of course, is that up until now astronauts were really putting on work clothes. As we potentially enter an era of space tourism, consumers may not need clothes with the same functional considerations.
Over time, for instance, we may be travelling in space vehicles where pressurization and other risks are more properly contained. if we aren’t going to be stepping out onto a planetary surface but simply viewing it through a port hole, aesthetic considerations will become more important than the anthropomorphic, gas-filled pressure vessels a real astronaut would need to survive.
This is where it gets interesting, though, at least for me. I suspect that, for some period to come, we’ll continue to see gear developed for space tourism that riffs off of uniforms designed for professional extraterrestrial exploration. There will also probably be a lot of references to super-hero motifs and echoes of what we associate with gear designed for high-endurance sports (even if we’re just sitting on a rocket the thole time).
Eventually, though, I feel certain that space tourism will beget something akin to athleissure: design that blend the structural rigour required for performance apparel with the comfort intended for relaxing. Call it spaceleisure, perhaps. Or interplanetary cruise wear.
History has shown that our predictions about what the future will look like are often wildly out of sync with what transpires. It’s possible we’ll eventually be taking to trips to the moon — much like anywhere else — in nothing more glamorous than a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
For now, though, space tourism is one of the only occasions that truly seems to call for dressing up. And then, perhaps, going boldly where no one has had to dress before.