NEW YORK ? Two private spacesuit designers unveiled their first steps toward serious attire for future space travelers Friday night in front of a young, hip crowd of artists and tech geeks in Manhattan.
A spacesuit model arched his back experimentally, flashed the thumbs up and struck other poses that drew chuckles from the crowd gathered inside the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center. He showed off a bright yellow pressure suit topped by the dome of a roomy space helmet, with a blue glove on the right hand and a black glove on the left hand. [Photo of the new private spacesuit.]
The blue glove was designed by Moscow-based spacesuit engineer Nikolay Moiseev, who built in unprecedented flexibility at the metacarpal knuckles of the hand. The black glove represented a single-layer design made from urethane by Brooklyn-based inventor and artist Ted Southern, which reduced the torque required to move the fingers to practically nothing.
"In the future, our plan is to actually blend the two and make a low-torque, single-layer, metacarpal glove," Southern said to the assembled crowd. "And it's going to happen."
Moiseev and Southern first combined their talents as former competitors to win a $100,000 second place prize in NASA's 2009 astronaut glove challenge. Now they have expanded their partnership under the name of Final Frontier Design to go from glove to full-fledged spacesuit designed to be worn inside a spacecraft during launch and re-entry.
Easy come, easy go
An interactive vacuum chamber glove box allowed visitors to try out the finger flexibility for themselves by tackling a Rubik's Cube. One participant joked that the cube represented the harder task at hand.
The gloves represent the duo's self-admitted specialty, but the older Moiseev has already begun looking ahead to the other challenges of spacesuit design.
"I dream of designs," Moiseev confided as he tended to the pressure suit lying on a table prior to the human demo. He added that he had personally tried practically every spacesuit in NASA's inventory, not to mention Russian spacesuits. [Graphic: Evolution of the Spacesuit]
The engineer's passion became evident as he demonstrated the three-step unlock and twist system for attaching the gloves to the suit, and also pointed out a unique front-entry zipper on the torso. Both features made donning the suit far easier than others, Moiseev said.
Not your daddy's spacesuit
Moiseev and Southern push a design philosophy that embraces easier manufacture. Southern created spacesuit pieces from heat-sealed nylon coated by urethane laminant in his art studio.
"Our whole angle is super-easy manufacture and very affordable," Southern explained.
Manufacturing the pressure suit components alone had cost perhaps $15,000 in all, Southern said. That price does not include all the other parts of a working spacesuit, such as communications gear and life support.
Still, it may give a potential edge over rival spacesuit makers such as Orbital Outfitters, who aim to create spacesuits with a price tag of approximately $100,000, according to Southern.
"I think we can cut that to one half, or even one third," Southern told SPACE.com.
The Final Frontier Design team has hopes that their spacesuit could eventually catch the eye of a commercial spaceflight such as SpaceX in California.
Building up confidence
The finale for the evening came in the form of a burst test, where Southern kept air pressure pumping into a capped pressure suit arm until something gave way. NASA pressurizes its spacesuits to about 4.3 pounds per square inch (psi).
"This is the most anticlimactic test possible," Southern joked.
The crowd still paid rapt attention anyway, with some wearing oversized safety goggles distributed by the designers. Southern counted off the pressure at intervals until a distinctly deep pop sounded at 13.5 psi.
Moiseev ambled over and conferred with Southern, who noted that one of the plastic caps on the ends of the arm had given way.
"I think we can get way higher than 14 [psi]," Southern said. "I want to go over 15."
The cap was replaced, and the test reset. A smaller group of onlookers murmured as the arm swelled visibly and pressure hit 16 psi, which represents a benchmark standard for NASA tests.
Finally the cap gave way once more at 26 psi, and Southern looked much more pleased. He turned to Moiseev for the engineer's input regarding standards for burst tests.
"21 psi is a good number," Moiseev confirmed.