'I really like these suits.' Boeing's snazzy (and flexible) Starliner spacesuits have astronauts buzzing (exclusive)

three astronauts standing in spacesuits
Boeing spacesuits being used by three NASA astronauts. From left: Mike Fincke (Starliner-1 commander), Suni Williams (Crew Flight Test pilot) and Butch Wilmore (Crew Flight Test commander). The photo was taken during a crew validation test on Oct. 18, 2022, during which they suited up and tested out a pressurized crew module to in part assess suit functionality. (Image credit: NASA)

HOUSTON — As a Canadian used to standing at bus stops in -40 degrees, I'm no stranger to stiff gloves. So I was delighted when the gloves on Boeing's Starliner spacesuit allowed me to easily flex my fingers.

Happily, my test conditions were less brutal than winter or a spaceflight: I was trying on part of the Starliner gear at NASA's Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (Building 9) during a media tour ahead of Boeing's first astronaut mission for NASA. That excursion, Crew Flight Test or CFT, is scheduled for liftoff no earlier than May 6.

"This suit is an ascent-entry suit, which means that it's made to be on use in the interior of our vehicle," Tori Wills Pedrotty, Starliner spacesuit lead, told reporters here at JSC March 21. She also demonstrated how the last 40 years have seen substantial advances in spacesuit design since NASA's space shuttle ascent suits were designed.

Related: 1st Boeing Starliner astronauts are ready to launch to the ISS for NASA (exclusive)

Boeing is the second commercial crew provider for astronaut missions, alongside SpaceX. Both companies were tasked in 2014 with running NASA-led crews to the ISS after the space shuttle's retirement. SpaceX began flying operational ISS missions in 2020, while Starliner was repeatedly delayed due to numerous technical issues. (The company and NASA now say all is well enough resolved to safely bring crew on board.)

CFT will see NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams do an approximately 10-day shakedown cruise to the ISS to assess the performance of Starliner and all of its related hardware, including the Boeing-made spacesuits. 

Assuming all goes well and launch schedules hold, the first operational six-month mission by astronauts aboard Boeing's spacecraft — known as Starliner-1 — will then take place in early 2025.

Related: Boeing begins fueling Starliner capsule ahead of 1st astronaut launch

Space.com staff writer Elizabeth Howell tries on a Boeing Starliner spacesuit glove at NASA's Johnson Space Center on March 21, 2024. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Boeing first unveiled its spacesuits in 2017, with features including wrap-around glass in the helmet and touchscreen-sensitive gloves. The overall suit is intended to be "lighter and more flexible through use of advanced materials and new joint patterns," NASA officials wrote at the time.

Launch-and-entry suits worn by space shuttle crews tended to run about 30 pounds (13.7 kg), while Boeing's version is only 20 pounds (9 kg). Aside from the jointed gloves, other flexibility features Starliner astronauts enjoy include moveable materials in the elbows and knees, along with "strategically located zippers", NASA wrote.

The astronauts are enjoying the flexibility. "I really like these suits," Williams said during a press conference here at JSC on March 22. "We worked with the company, David Clark, through Boeing to get the suits squared away for us ... I think they're really nice."

Space shuttle astronauts like Williams and Wilmore wore a few varieties of interior spacesuits over the decades. Early 1981-2 missions STS-1 through STS-4 used a Launch-Entry Suit (LES) derived from a high-pressure suit worn by U.S. Air Force pilots in the mid-1970s, Space Center Houston officials wrote

Related: Into the Blue: Boeing's Starliner Spacesuit and Past Blue Astronaut Wear

NASA astronauts C. Gordon Fullerton, left, and Jack Lousma leaving the suit-up room in their Launch-Entry Spacesuits (LES) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on their STS-3 space shuttle mission launch day of March 22, 1982. Visible behind them are then-chief astronaut John Young (far left) and George Abbey, director of flight operations (center, in tie). (Image credit: NASA)

NASA then flew astronauts to space unsuited until the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed seven people during the ascent. After that, all NASA-led crews flew on the space shuttle using some kind of pumpkin spacesuit, all made by David Clark Company (the same manufacturer that built the Gemini program's spacesuits in the 1960s.) 

A modified LES from early space shuttle days was worn from STS-26 in 1988 through STS-64 in 1994. This LES was a one-piece, partial pressure suit. It inflated with air-filled bladders between the astronaut's body and the suit's outer layer "to provide direct mechanical counterpressure to the body when it was inflated," Space Center Houston wrote.

Following a transition period, remaining shuttle crews used the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES) through the program's retirement in 2011. ACES was a full-pressure spacesuit that put the astronaut "in an airtight body-shaped pressure envelope", but with less mass and more joint flexibility than the LES. This was important, not only for crew comfort, but also for emergency procedures. 

And now, a generation later, the next set of spacesuits by Boeing, SpaceX and other companies all aim to be even more flexible while maintaining crew safety. Boeing, in fact, continues to change its own spacesuit design: After its current David Clark version flies on board CFT, a new ILC Dover version will be used for astronauts, Space.com partner collectSPACE reported in 2022.

NASA astronaut Suni Williams (left), Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test pilot, does a spacesuit check during a crew validation test at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 18, 2022. She is assisted by Tori Willis, Starliner spacesuit lead.  (Image credit: NASA)

The current Starliner suit has five sizings available, Wills Pedrotty explained to us at JSC. Each crew member is carefully measured, and then the relevant pieces for their bodies can be swapped in for the best comfort and safety. As for the integrated boots, there are 10 sizes to put on your foot, all developed with San Antonio Shoemakers.

Wills Pedrotty pointed to an extra-small spacesuit laid out on a table in Building 9 to demonstrate the different features. The plastic-tooth zippers on the suit, for example, allow for precise pressurization: "there are double rows of teeth that allow it (the spacesuit) to lock and interlock" to hold the pressure in, she explained.

Tori Wills Pedrotty, Starliner spacesuit lead, models the Boeing-made suit at NASA's Johnson Space Center on March 21, 2024 during a media tour ahead of Crew Flight Test. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

But the best part of the suit, Wills Pedrotty said, is the visor. "It has a really extreme field of view. When you're inside the suit, you can turn your head completely from side to side and see all the way around here. So the field of view from this visor is pretty amazing."

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore, Crew Flight Test commander, assesses his helmet during a fit check at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 18, 2022. (Image credit: NASA)

Starliner's blue suits are only one of a large set of spacesuits being used or developed for future agency missions. To take a few examples: SpaceX has movie-inspired launch-entry suits upon its Crew Dragon spacecraft. The Artemis 2 astronauts launching in 2025 will use the ACES-inspired Orion Crew Survival System (OCSS) inside their spacecraft. A number of new exterior spacesuits are under development for the ISS and future Artemis moon excursions in the coming decade.

Why so many suits? Wills Pedrotty emphasized that each spacesuit must be tailored "to the environment that it's expected to work in." The field of human factors considers matters such as an astronaut's ability to reach panels and switches, for example. 

Wills Pedrotty has been working regularly alongside CFT astronauts Wilmore and Williams to make sure the spacesuits are comfortable, through the years of iterations and development. Standing alongside the crew in the suit-up room on launch day will be exciting, she added, although everyone will continue to emphasize safety first.

"My expectation is that we are going to learn a lot," she said. "But we put a lot of work and a lot of time (already) into making sure that not only the suit system, but also the vehicle is safe. That's our No. 1 priority. This will just prove to the world that we're ready for recurring flights."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace

  • matthewo
    I could care less about fashion, as long as the suits work.
  • 24launch
    Good grief, if Boeing spent just a fraction of the budget they have for PR and Congressional lobbying on actual engineering, they wouldn't need to be doing all this PR and Congressional lobbying! :p
  • LovelyEvenstar
    They look Fallout inspired :)
  • pete3000
    Tesla set a standard across the US with their electric charging stations. So why couldn't Boeing ask SpaceX to use their suits and plug them in to the starliner? Anyone know the cost diff between the SpaceX designed suit and Boeing's?