Boeing Unveils Starliner Spacesuit

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Astronauts heading into orbit aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will wear lighter and more comfortable spacesuits than earlier suits astronauts wore. The suit capitalizes on historical designs, meets NASA requirements for safety and functionality, and introduces cutting-edge innovations. Boeing unveiled its spacesuit design Wednesday as the company continues to move toward flight tests of its Starliner spacecraft and launch systems that will fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

A few of the advances in the design:

  • Lighter and more flexible through use of advanced materials and new joint patterns
  • Helmet and visor incorporated into the suit instead of detachable
  • Touchscreen-sensitive gloves
  • Vents that allow astronauts to be cooler, but can still pressurize the suit immediately

The full suit, which includes an integrated shoe, weighs about 20 pounds with all its accessories – about 10 pounds lighter than the launch-and-entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts.

Astronaut Sunni Williams puts on the communications carrier of Boeing's new Starliner spacesuit. (Credits: Boeing)
Astronaut Sunni Williams puts on the communications carrier of Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit. (Credits: Boeing)

The new Starliner suit’s material lets water vapor pass out of the suit, away from the astronaut, but keeps air inside. That makes the suit cooler without sacrificing safety. Materials in the elbows and knees give astronauts more movement, too, while strategically located zippers allow them to adapt the suit’s shape when standing or seated.

“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” astronaut Eric Boe said. “It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”

Of course, the suit has to be as functional as it is safe, Boe said. If an astronaut gets strapped in but can’t reach the switches or work the touchscreen, the spacesuit would not be effective. That’s why astronauts have spent some of their time sitting inside a Starliner mock-up wearing the spacesuit. They climb in and out repeatedly and try out different reaches and positions so they can establish the best ways for astronauts to work inside the spacecraft’s confines.

“The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft’s redundant life support systems,” said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”

Astronaut Eric Boe evaluates Boeing Starliner spacesuit in mockup of spacecraft cockpit. (Credit: Boeing)
Astronaut Eric Boe evaluates Boeing Starliner spacesuit in mockup of spacecraft cockpit. (Credit: Boeing)

Boe and astronauts Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and Suni Williams are training for flight tests using spacecraft under development for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, including Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon systems. Flight tests with astronauts aboard are slated to begin in 2018.

The spacesuits astronauts wear for walking in space are already aboard the station. Heavier and bulkier than launch-and-entry suits, spacewalking ensembles – called EMUs for extravehicular mobility units – have to function as a spacecraft unto themselves.

A suit technician fits the communications carrier on an astronaut stand-in before pressurizing the spacesuit inside Crew Quarters at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA/Cory Huston)
A suit technician fits the communications carrier on an astronaut stand-in before pressurizing the spacesuit inside Crew Quarters at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA/Cory Huston)

Standing inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, former astronaut Chris Ferguson, who is now director of Crew and Mission Systems for Boeing, modeled the new suit in front of a mock-up of the Starliner spacecraft. On launch day, astronauts will don the suit in the historic Crew Quarters before striding across the Crew Access Arm at Space Launch Complex 41 and boarding a Starliner as it stands atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

“We slogged through some of the real engineering challenges and now we are getting to the point where those challenges are largely behind us and it’s time to get on to the rubber meeting the road,” Ferguson said.

Carrying up to four astronauts at a time for NASA, operational Commercial Crew missions are to take astronauts to the space station on a regular basis permitting the crew on the orbiting laboratory to grow to seven residents. That will mean more science and research time for NASA to seek vital answers for the challenges of future deep-space missions.

From this point, Boeing will continue fit checks and other testing alongside the astronauts as all the teams train for the missions and push toward flight tests.

“To me, it’s a very tangible sign that we are really moving forward and we are a lot closer than we’ve been,” Ferguson said. “The next time we pull all this together, it might be when astronauts are climbing into the actual spacecraft.”



  • MzUnGu

    Guaranteed not to be found if any of them like end up in the ocean…. 😀

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Gloves for Modern touchscreens”.
    So glad they didn’t opt for gloves for “unmodern” touchscreens.
    Also, “Can be pressurised in an emergency”?.
    Surely, the main purpose of the suit is in case of loss of pressure. OK, air quality and heating as well, but surely those would be emergencies too. And how many non-emergency situations are they expecting where the spacesuit is even needed at all?. Not saying they aren’t funky looking compared to more traditional efforts, but don’t think having nine year olds lead the marketing team was a particularly good move.

  • Paul_Scutts

    The helmet in the illustration is a touch Darth Vadery (queue heavy breathing). 🙂

  • passinglurker

    Good thing they are aiming for the desert then? :D… plus they probably have strobers or or reflective stripes or something for that rare abort to “just off the coast”

    The real question is how long will it take before an astronaut coins the term “smurf suit” and it sticks 😉

  • JamesG

    It looks better/newer than I thought it would.
    Anyone know who is making it? Surely they aren’t doing it inhouse.

  • JamesG

    Probably already has.

  • Bulldog

    The suit is designed and manufactured by the David Clark Co. of Worcester, Massachusetts. Been using their headsets for almost 40 years.

  • My dad gifted me his DC headset when I started flying. I wonder how much of Felix’s suit that DC incorporated into the new Boeing suit?

  • MzUnGu

    Well, pretty sure they are aiming at not ever needing them for a hull breach either…. the earth is what? 70% ocean?

  • passinglurker

    this doesn’t have the shuttles cross range if they go off course enough to miss a desert on reentry I’d be more worried about burning up than being hard to see.

  • Richard Malcolm

    The distress beacons will be of far greater value to locating them than the color of their suits, which in any event are hard to see from a distance when even just several inches under water.

    Anyway, as others have said: less of a concern for a vehicle primarily designed for landing on land.

  • Paul451

    No, they meant Modern touchscreen UI, as opposed to Android or iOS. That’s why it’s capitalised. Starliner’s OS is Windows 10 for tablets.

    [edit: For sake of internet, this was joke. A play on the capitalisation of “Gloves for Modern”, as if it was a proper noun.]

  • JamesG

    That is what I thought from the teaser video that showed the fittings.

  • JamesG

    Won’t burn, but they might bounce back into orbit or the Gs of a too steep entry would crush them.

  • JamesG

    Probably not much. His suit was pretty much a regular “S-series” Some stuff will be the same since its the same engineers, but this suit looks like it is more closely related to a Sokol than an ACES.

  • MzUnGu

    Shuttle flight suits had been blue once, then it was orange after Challenger when safety is relearned…. I guess it’s time for an accident to remind us of complacency… and for a lesson learned. 😛

  • Randy Carson

    So we’ll have a 3 day launch delay for a forced update, and hope the update doesn’t break the system. I’d rather fly with a PDP-8.

  • DJN

    this is joke right? Windows 10!

  • Chuck Lauer

    It looks like the shoulder joints and the overall tailored fit and light weight come from the DC suborbital emergency suit prototype that was shown at a NSRC conference a few years ago. The zip closure soft helmet and the gloves are new.

  • JamesG

    Yes joke. This is Boeing we are talking about here. The accountants made them have to use a bootleg copy of Win 8.

  • DJN

    Glad to hear but not obvious. I live in Seattle, have lots of friends/relatives working/worked at the Lazy B. Seattle based corporations have always have had a leaning towards MSFT first, other vendors second. I would think they would used a hardened OS, but you just never know…….

  • Arthur Hamilton

    I guess that makes Chris Ferguson’s new nick name “Papa Smurf.” Because he looks like him in that “smurf suit.” That’s what I’m calling it from now on.

  • delphinus100

    That kind of thing is not an issue when you’re only coming back *from* LEO..

    You may get the intended lift on the way down or not, but there will be no ‘bouncing back into orbit.’

  • Bulldog

    I’m hoping the suits they rolled out in “Boeing Blue” are for promo purposes. I’m in agreement that International Orange for the flight articles would make much more sense.

  • windbourne

    Why rear entry zipper? That will require extra help to get into.

  • JamesG

    It is probably not envisaged that anyone will ever have to button up alone. Crews “buddy check” each other’s suits as part flight operations and it appears to have a wet-suit style long pull on the zipper anyway.

    The rear zipper greatly simplifies the construction of the torso vs the front or transverse closure and seal.

  • JamesG

    Your comment made me realize something. Where is the torso cinch? The strap that runs from neck to crotch to keep the suit from trying to stretch out under pressure?

  • windbourne

    internally built?

  • JamesG

    But then how do you adjust it for sitting or standing? Time to go trolling the USPTO…

  • windbourne

    that zipper on the front. When you are sitting, you pull that across. when u stand up, unzip.

  • windbourne

    When I used to teach at Boeing in the 90s, early 00s for Comp Sci, NONE of the engineers would touch windows. It was a constant joke that Airbus made heavy use of Windows.
    Boeing engineers lean towards MS?

  • windbourne

    hey, I used to code on those. Mumps. Back in … well, long ago.

  • DJN

    Its not the 90’s anymore. I started selling unix based tools in Seattle in 1997, so I might have missed that era. Anyway, Boeing engineers had moved on to CAD, Datacenter and desktop belonged to Boeing Computer services.

  • JamesG

    Ah, you are probably right. Those must be some really good zippers…

    Pity, I was hoping for something more clever.

  • windbourne

    But, my wife currently works for Boeing and she tells me that most engineers still hate windows. For example, they insist on NOT running windows on their aircraft, while the Airbus CEO actually approached Balmer and BEGGED for a version of windows that was DO-178B (ED-12B for europe) Level B, or even Level C, certified. Apparently, Gates (interesting that he decided to be involved in this) came back a week later and told him not a CHANCE of any of that.
    And that was in 2010.

  • JamesG

    Go look up skip reentry.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    You mean they don’t run a real-time version of unix along the lines of Wind River’s VXWorks and derivatives, or QNX?

  • DJN

    I just phoned my BIL, retired from Boeing. His team developed the software that kept (or didn’t!) keep the 777 from falling out of the sky. He says non-critical systems, like entertainment used Windows. For critical systems, Boeing requires access to the source code, and that wasn’t going to happen with MSFT. Critical systems are based on Linux, which they modify and test the code they use as if they wrote it themselves.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Wow, that’s a surprise. But shouldn’t be. Been using Linux since 1994, I love it. I use RT Linux on two of my milling machines, but I sure would love to see what they have done with it. So how are they avoiding the open requirements of the GPL? Any ideas? Or do you think they’re just ignoring them?

  • DJN

    I would expect they could classify their changes to code as for internal use only. AKAIK, if you intend to sell or distribute code acquired under GPL, you a subject to GPL.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    That makes sense, it at least makes it vague enough for lawyers to fight over what constitutes ‘sell’ and ‘distribute’. I can’t say I’m familiar with the court precedence, but if you charge a programmer’s time to someone’s charge account, that sounds like a sale. But then again that was probably a Boeing charge number for paying a Boeing programmer (Or perhaps Honeywell to Honeywell?), and I can see where airlines would not WANT to deal with the source code … So yeah, that makes perfect sense.