It’s hard to say what part of a spacesuit is most difficult to design. Is it the shoulders, where a few inches’ difference in joint placement can lead to a repetitive stress injury? Is it the outer layer, which must protect its wearer from micrometeorites, tiny flecks of metal, rock, or paint hurtling thousands of miles per hour through space? Or perhaps it’s the gloves, since they must simultaneously protect astronauts’ hands, which feature intricate musculature and more than 25 joints, while also allowing for precise and smooth range of motion.
Astronauts have compared their current gloves to baseball mitts, not exactly conducive to the careful mechanical work often required on a spacewalk. So NASA took notice in 2009 when newcomers Nikolay (“Nik”) Moiseev and Ted Southern won second place at the agency-sponsored Astronaut Glove Challenge. Southern was a costume designer whose prior projects included wings for Victoria’s Secret angels and costumes for the traveling acrobat show Cirque du Soleil. Moiseev, on the other hand, had helped design five generations of Soviet and then Russian spacesuits at Zvezda, Russia’s spacesuit supplier, but had recently immigrated to the U.S.
The two used their unconventional combination of skills and second place winnings to set up Final Frontier Design, Brooklyn’s premiere (and only) warehouse space design firm. They’ve spent the subsequent decade plus working on suits and suit components for NASA and other organizations, with an eye toward expanding to major corporate players like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Boeing. The ultimate goal: create the much-sought-after “mechanical counterpressure” spacesuit. Spacesuits protect astronauts from the vacuum of space, where lack of pressure and oxygen could swiftly cause unconsciousness, ruptured lungs, and terrible tissue damage from bubbling blood. But a mechanical counterpressure suit would allow spacewalking astronauts to transition from the traditional model—essentially a human-shaped, pressurized balloon—to something that fits more like a wetsuit, with the garment itself providing the pressure humans need to survive.
The pursuit of a new spacesuit made news in early August, after a report from the Inspector General’s office indicated that after 40 years working with the same set of suits, NASA is on track to spend a whopping $1 billion developing new models—and will not have them ready in time for planned moon landing in 2024. NOVA chatted with Moiseev over Zoom about the literally astronomical price of spacesuit design, why mechanical counterpressure is still a dream, and what makes astronaut knuckles so exciting.
Alissa Greenberg: Let’s start with the Inspector General report. It revealed that NASA is spending huge amounts of money on these suits. What do you think about that report?
Nik Moiseev: Many people ask me now on Facebook and on space forums about that report. They want to know, “What happened for a spacesuit to cost $1 billion?” But it’s really 24 or 26 spacesuits plus a few things for certification and verification. We need spacesuits for training—not just for spaceflight but for high altitude planes, for microgravity flights. We have to have many spacesuits for astronaut training from the ground.
So my comment about that to many of my friends is: It looks like a spacesuit is much more complicated than a rocket! A rocket is a piece of metal. A spacesuit is a combination of fabric, software, hardware, and it is a mechanism around the human body. Maybe a little more work!
AG: Considering how expensive it all is, why is it important to go to space? Why is it important to spend so much time and money designing these garments that allow us to do this?
NM: I think that there is this adventurous spirit of human beings pushing us to discover something new. We have to move through the solar system, to discover other planets and that’s just beginning. Mars is not our final destination! That will be a very important step for humanity.
*Space has also led to many technological advances that have provided benefits to our society in health and medicine, transportation, internet, TV broadcasting, communications, environment, and productivity.
AG: So what are you working on for NASA now?
NM: We’re part of the space community to build the moon spacesuits. A classical spacesuit, a full-pressure spacesuit. We have a few contracts from NASA, including hip joints, boots, communication caps, waist joints, a ventilation system. Probably we’ll move to Houston next year.
Our new spacesuits are much heavier but provide much more mobility. Mobility is critical in these suits, because when they’re pressurized the enclosure resists any bending.
AG: So the primary quandary in creating a better spacesuit is figuring out how to distribute the pressure we need in a way that is healthy.
NM: People think that spacesuits are like clothes for astronauts. But it’s really a pressure garment, protecting from low pressure outside. Divers use a pressure protocol in diving under the water. Astronauts use another pressure protocol to make flights above the atmosphere.
Spacesuits started before World War II for high altitude flights. When we start to fly higher and higher, oxygen masks help a lot. But at a certain altitude we have enough oxygen here [gestures to chest]. That oxygen flow will inflate our lungs. But when pressure outside of the body drops, we cannot breathe. We need pressure for the whole body—eyeballs, chest, everywhere. And if we have local pressure, the human body doesn’t like local pressure. A good example is our neck!
AG: I’ve been reading about mechanical counterpressure, where the spacesuit material provides the pressure instead. How is that different from what we did before to create that all-over pressure astronauts need, and how does that play into your designs?
NM: A classical spacesuit has full closure. And between the fabric and the body there’s gas. We have a ventilation gap, so there’s automatically pressure everywhere. Counterpressure is an idea. It still doesn't exist. There’s many reasons, and all those reasons are medical.
First, if we have direct pressure on the body from the fabric, the fabric compresses our body. If we have uneven pressure, blood flows to the low-pressure areas. So, on my arm, we have compression here [gestures to bicep and forearm.] But here [elbow] we have concavity, and here [wrist] we have concavity. So it’s easy to compress this area [bicep]. But then blood goes to here [elbow], and that will be redness or lesion. And then depending on the time, that can lead to trauma. That’s very painful. After 15 minutes you have to interrupt that experience.
And our bodies change sizes. When we breathe, the chest circumference changes. With a compression spacesuit we have to be careful because if I pick up something and my biceps increase in size, the compression level will be different. My favorite science fiction movie is “The Martian.” The hero has a mechanical counterpressure spacesuit. But that spacesuit doesn’t exist.
We’ve made a few parts of a mechanical counterpressure spacesuit. But we cannot make a mechanical counterpressure suit if we don't have a smart second skin. We don’t have that material. Maybe in the future!
AG: But you were able to design gloves with a counterpressure component, right?
NM: We have a very original design; only gloves from Final Frontier Designs have knuckle joints. NASA has gloves, or the Russians, or Chinese, that have fixed knuckles and the astronauts work only with their fingers. Our gloves have finger joints and knuckle joints. Knuckle joints provide much more mobility.
AG: And why were you able to create the knuckle joints when the others were not?
NM: I think because of the innovation approach at Final Frontier Design. Usually people ask about technical issues. But Final Frontier was founded by two people. My cofounder, Ted Southern, is an artist. He knows many things about the human body. And when we join together we create new quality. That is amazing, from my personal point of view. Russia has only engineers! Now, I can tell that engineers have very limited perspective.
AG: I read a lot about Ted’s work, designing for Cirque du Soleil and building the wings for Victoria’s Secret. It must be a whole different experience working with him.
NM: Before, I was only thinking about functionality. But the modern world has high demand for good-looking, cool-looking suits.
Business partnership is like family. Sometimes we don’t understand each other. Sometimes we create amazing things and cocreations. His experience, my experience are so different. We have different cultures, different backgrounds. And we’ve learned together on our designs—we created something totally new.
* Moiseev added later via email
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.