2013 Invention Awards: Suborbital Safeguard
A sleek, comfortable space suit designed to protect high-flying tourists.
During NASA’s 2007 Astronaut Glove Challenge, costume fabricator Ted Southern met fellow competitor Nikolay Moiseev, a Russian space-suit builder. Although each walked away from the competition empty-handed, they formed a productive friendship. Two years later, they entered a glove they built together and won $100,000.
Southern and Moiseev are now building the third generation of a complete space suit, called 3G, in hopes of capturing a piece of the suborbital spaceflight industry—valued at $1.6 billion over the next decade. As companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, XCOR, and Blue Origin prepare to launch tourists toward the edge of space, Southern says the dangers of the environment have opened up a new market. “It’s almost a full vacuum up there,” he says.
At about $200,000 each, modern space suits can cost more than the suborbital ticket itself. And most use an inflatable inner bladder and a durable outer restraint layer—a two-layer design that makes them heavy, bulky, and inflexible. Yet “comfort is a big requirement for suborbital flights. These are people paying a lot of money out of pocket,” says Jonathan Clark, a space medicine consultant at Baylor College of Medicine.
In 2009, Southern and Moiseev began developing a single-layer space suit that they hope to sell for about $50,000. The designers build it by fusing together pieces of urethane-coated nylon—a durable, airtight, and pliable material. When inflated, carefully positioned seams and metal braces help a wearer maintain flexibility, and internal tubing circulates air for cooling. Ports on the front allow for custom life-support attachments.
The NASA certification process, crucial for any new suit, isn’t cheap, so last year Southern and Moiseev sought crowdfunding. The $27,000 they earned has them 90 percent of the way to a finished prototype, and the duo has already begun testing key components for flight certification. The industry has taken note. “We recently had a visit from former astronaut Garrett Reisman,” a crew safety specialist for SpaceX, says Southern. “He saw a pressurized [second-generation] suit and was pretty impressed.”
Fit For Space
Ted Southern, Nikolay Moiseev
Final Frontier Design
Third Generation (3G) Suit
COST TO DEVELOP
See the rest of the articles from our 2013 Invention Awards section here, and see all of our May issue here.