In what might be the most expensive mid-life crisis in history, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos heads to space this week. Instead of using his mind-boggling, record-breaking wealth to fix or at least alleviate the compounding crises on Earth, the 57 year-old oligarch has decided to don a cute blue suit and shoot himself into the atmosphere to cause more problems up there.
“It feels good to be in the flight suit,” Bezos said in a promotional video posted on Instagram. I’d wager it would feel even better to spend his $200 billion fortune ending hunger in his home country, but sure. Bezos’ love of tight clothing can only be matched by his disdain for paying federal taxes; The New York Times called him a “style icon” and apparently was not joking: “Mr. Bezos has gone from a pleated-pants sweatshirt-wearing Smurf to muscled-up, black-polo-shirt-and-shades digi-stud,” Vanessa Friedman wrote in 2018.
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So his 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.
One scientist who did not want to be identified by name told me the look resembles “pajamas,” not a real suit by NASA standards.
Tagging along for the ride, and also wearing the suit, is Jeff’s brother Mike, a former firefighter who also appears to love figure-hugging jeans. Wally Funk, an 83 year-old aviation pioneer who trained with NASA in the 1960s will make the trip. And then there’s Oliver Daemon, a Dutch teenager whose dad paid $28 million for the ticket after the original bidder backed out due to “scheduling conflicts.” (Don’t you just hate it when your assistant double-books your first space flight?)
A representative for Blue Origin declined to comment on the spacesuit design.
Bezos, of course, is not the only billionaire to take a trip into space because he damn well feels like it. Richard Branson just came back from his orbit around the edge of space last month on a Virgin Galactic rocket. His team’s outfit, co-designed by Under Armour, was also an ocean blue jumpsuit. That one was just as sleek as the one Bezos will wear on Tuesday, but not nearly as slim-fitting. Think of it as the rich person’s idea of a Snuggie: loose and room-y, and a little Hollywood. (Under Armour did not comment by press time.)
Speaking of the movies: a costume designer named Jose Fernández, who made Daft Punk’s helmets as well as the outfits seen in The Planet of the Apes, Avengers, and Batman vs. Superman dreamed up the futuristic, super-skinny looks for Elon Musk and NASA’s SpaceX flight. (Fernández also declined to comment to The Daily Beast.)
Brad Holschuh is the co-director of the Wearable Technology Lab and associate professor at the University of Minnesota. He explained the various definitions for “space suit” via email.
“When people think of NASA ‘space suits,’ there are actually two suits that might come to mind,” Holschuh said. “The first is Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) which is the iconic white space suit that you see astronauts wearing when they are outside of their vehicle/habitat on spacewalks. It is a full fledged, completely self-contained suit designed (and intended) to be used for spacewalking activities.”
The second is the Advanced Crew Escape Suit (ACES), a bright orange suit that astronauts wear before and during their launch and reentry. “It is an emergency suit, worn only to protect the astronaut in case of a loss of pressure in the vehicle during launch, and which would only be pressurized during such an emergency and whose only purpose is to keep the crew alive,” Holschuh said. “It is not meant for (or optimized for) spacewalking activities, and would not ever (normally) be worn outside of the vehicle.”
ACES is famously bright orange, and that’s an intentional choice, according to Holschuh. “It’s to provide maximum visibility of the crew if they need to be rescued/recovered from a water landing,” he explained. “Orange provides maximum contrast to the blue water.”
Since passengers on commercial flights do not have plans to leave their vehicle during their trips—unless there is an emergency—the billionaires are not actually wearing space suits. “The Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin ‘flight suits’ are not even pressurized garments,” Holschuh said. “They are like the blue jumpsuits worn by astronauts during training on the ground— and may be worn on flights as ‘performance wear’ but not for any pressurized or life support function.”
Basically: “The SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic suits have chosen to design the color palettes of their suits first for aesthetic reasons, which is probably fine as they don’t plan for potential ocean landings and instead want to offer an enhanced customer experience, part of which includes outfitting the participants in futuristic garments,” Holschuh said.
Indeed, on Monday morning shows Bezos confirmed that his crew will not wear space suits, but rather flight suits. “With the cabin pressurized, it’s redundant; we don’t need to use spacesuits, and we’re going to be just like this,” Bezos said on NBC News.
“We have come to know and love the design of the NASA space suit,” Holschuh said. “The large, white inflated garment has been immortalized in pop culture, but it was not designed intentionally to be ‘fashionable.’ All aspects of the suit design are driven by functional needs—colors are used for visibility and contact, thermal reflectivity, or to help identify and disambiguate crew members on video feeds.”
Commercial spaceflight companies, on the other hand, are “first and foremost selling very expensive experiences,” Holschuh explained. “The suits are part of the experience—and a way to play up the experience is to offer the opportunity to wear futuristic looking space suits while traveling to space.”
Will Green is a PhD student at the University of North Dakota’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory who will be on a team designing a lunar space suit at NASA this fall. He also noted a distinct difference in commercial space suits when compared to the government’s options.
“I’m not trying to be too hyperbolic when I say this, but the Virgin Galactic space suit isn’t what I would traditionally call a space suit,” he said. “With Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, those suits are more just for look, and potentially extra padding if they hit a wall. But there’s no protection beyond that.”
Green keeps up with Hollywood space suits and lets science fiction navigate his wildest dreams for the future of NASA outfits. He mentioned the sleek orange and white suits seen on Matt Damon in 2015’s The Martian.
“[The costumes] are a representation of a futuristic space suit called the mechanical counter-pressure space suit,” Green said. “That’s a dream spacesuit where instead of being in a pressurized suit, you have the suit pressed on to you to provide the persistence in keeping you from expanding into a vacuous space.”
Green added, “When you look towards science fiction, it allows engineers to see possibilities of what technology could look like in an applied situation. We definitely pay attention to it.”
“My interest in human spaceflight can be traced back to watching Star Trek as a kid,” Holschuh said. “So in that sense I think there is a definite inspiration from Hollywood and other science fiction sources in the design of space technologies, including space suits, and we see that coming to fruition in the aesthetic design of the suits being developed by commercial space companies. There is an excitement attached with the adventure of space exploration—and we see the commercial space companies attempting to capture that essence in their suit designs.”
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