Passengers traveling on future Virgin Galactic space flights don’t exactly need suits capable of walking on the moon and withstanding temperature swings of hundreds of degrees. But if you’re spending all that money to go to space, you should at least do it in style. Enter the new spacesuits that Under Armour made for Virgin Galactic.
“When we got the brief about bringing this to life, it was undoubtedly a little bit daunting,” Nick Cienski, Under Armour’s principal innovation apparel designer, tells Popular Mechanics. “It is beyond what we do.”
Under Armour, the technical spacewear partner for Richard Branson’s company, then, turned to its materials team and stable of technologies to create a Virgin Galactic-specific suit used for pilots and passengers, consisting of a base layer, one-piece suit, jacket, and boots.
“When we started to unpack the brief, we understood very quickly that what these individuals were going to go through wasn’t dramatically different than athletes on gamedays,” Cienski says. “We want to make them comfortable and give them a full range of motion with zero distractions from their gear.”
While the suit doesn’t need to protect against the actual perils of space, as those wearing the gear will remain inside a Virgin Galactic capsule for the entire trip, Cienski says temperature control was still a key component of designing the suit. That’s because travelers will leave the hot desert climate of the American southwest to climb into a regulated launch ship before the few minutes of weightless floating in a capsule lined against the frigid temperature, but still without full temperature control.
For that, Under Armour wanted to ensure maximum comfort for passengers experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime event. The base layer includes bioceramic-infused yarn to help move moisture from the skin and promote blood flow to keep the body cool. The lining of the suit includes a cellulose fiber made of recycled wood pulp that naturally pushes away heat.
“We looked at using yarns and structures in fabric to layer on top of each other to help promote as much temperature regulation as we could,” Cienski says.
Under Armour programmed the Virgin Galactic flight profile into its environmental chamber in Baltimore and had people sit through the flight and give feedback, both anecdotally and through monitors.
“It has definitely been a scientific journey,” Cienski says, “from using technologies we already have in house and using them in a slightly different way.”
The suit includes technology, primarily in the elbows and knees, that form to the shape of the body for precision fit and mobility. There’s also cushioning built into the shoulder and neck area, both high-impact zones during the high G portions of the flight.
The footwear creation mimics much of the same thinking, featuring the brand’s most cushioned foam for comfort underfoot—especially when floating around the cabin and potentially bumping into things—and an upper designed with dynamic fit to shape to the contour of the foot for the most comfort possible. Temperature-regulation technology embroidered in the upper merges with a boot free of laces.
“We wanted to create a product that would not allow any distractions,” Monie Gaba, senior lead of footwear innovation, tells Popular Mechanics. “Part of the experience is looking up and floating weightlessly in space and we wanted something free of distractions for the passengers.”
With much of the construction of the suit and boot new to the team—Under Armour isn’t generally making one-piece suits or boots without laces that rise to below the calf—getting the fit right for different body types presented challenges. The process included plenty of sampling and refinement of the final design. The base layer, created at Under Armour’s headquarters, also features a new seam construction to give it a sleeker design.
From an aesthetic perspective, Cienski says he took inspiration from the space movies and television shows he grew up watching, hoping to give the adventure seekers something special and not a run-of-the-mill Army-spec flight suit.
The design features a dark blue and an electric blue meant to mimic the atmospheric layer around the earth. Gold serves as the main accent, a color often used in space suits and a tie to both the sun and rocket boosters. Using the gold allowed Cienski to focus eyes on certain parts of the suit while creating a color story pulled right from space. The suit also includes a gold-printed liner.
“We didn’t have to put the gold liner in there,” he says, “but why wouldn’t we want the suit to feel special?”
The gold tape and adhesive continue into the footwear, where Gaba took cues from the spacecraft in its design. The round portholes of the spacecraft play in the round pull tab on the back of the boot and the round cutouts in the outsole show the gold plate underneath.
The boot’s sockliner includes, “We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants,” a quote from Sir Isaac Newton.
While not NASA-approved, the new space gear provides a modern take on a modern way of experiencing space.
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