Our Place in Space: The Z-Series Spacesuits

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Our Place in Space: A to Z!  For this year’s A to Z Challenge, I’ll be taking you on a partly imaginative and highly optimistic tour of humanity’s future in outer space.  If you don’t know what the A to Z Challenge is, click here to learn more.  In today’s post, Z is for…


Oh my gosh, we actually did it.  This is the final post of this year’s A to Z Challenge!  All month long, we’ve been talking about humanity’s future in outer space.  We’ve talked about the space vehicles that will take us to other worlds, and we’ve talked about the kinds of habitats we could build on other worlds once we get there.  But there’s one thing I’m sure you’ve all been wondering about this whole time: what are people in the future going to wear?

Quite a few years ago, NASA introduced a prototype spacesuit for future missions to the Moon and Mars.  They called it the Z-1 spacesuit.  For some reason, the color scheme looked suspiciously like Buzz Lightyear.  A few years later, NASA introduced an updated design called the Z-2 spacesuit, which had glow-y parts that made it look like something out of Tron.

The Z-1 used mostly “soft” materials in its design, which gave astronauts increased mobility and flexibility; however, these soft materials did not provide much protection.  If you trip and fall on the Moon, you don’t want your spacesuit to rip or tear—not even a little bit!  So the Z-2 used a mix of soft and hard materials, in an attempt to strike a better balance between safety and mobility.

As I understand it, the really important thing is that the Z-series suits have a big, giant hatch in the back.  This hatch-back design makes it much easier to get in and out of your spacesuit, compared to more traditional spacesuit designs.  First, you open the hatch.  Next, you stick your arms in the arm tubes and your legs in the leg tubes.  Your head goes into the fishbowl part.  Then, just close the hatch behind you, and you’re good to go.  Easy!

So will astronauts in the future be wearing Z-3 or Z-4 spacesuits as they explore the Moon, Mars, and so on?  No.  No, they won’t.  I can’t find a source explicitly stating that development of the Z-series spacesuit was canceled, but I’m 99% sure development of the Z-series spacesuit was canceled.  At the very least, there hasn’t been any new news about it for years.  In the meantime, NASA has introduced other spacesuit designs, like the xEMU (eXploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit), intended for use on the Moon, Mars, etc.

It is worth nothing, though, that aspects of the Z-series designs—including the very convenient hatch in the back idea—have been incorporated into the xEMU.  Fans of the Z-1 and Z-2 suits can find some consolation in that.

Predicting the future is hard.  A lot of cool ideas have been proposed for space exploration, and quite a few of those ideas are now in active development at NASA, E.S.A., or elsewhere.  Some of the things we talked about this month may actually happen someday; others may be quietly canceled, like the Z-series spacesuits.  So whenever you see someone (like me) talking about what the future is going to be like, take what they say with a grain of salt (especially if they get hyper specific about what we’re going to do and by what date we’re going to do it).

But even if it turns out I got specific details about the future wrong, I still believe the general ideas expressed in these A to Z posts will be right.  Human civilization is going through a tough time right now, but will come out of this, we will learn from our mistakes, and we will build a better future for ourselves, both here on Earth and out there among the stars.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s an infographic from Space.com about the Z-1 spacesuit, and here’s their infographic about the Z-2.

Also, here’s a short video from NASA about the xEMU spacesuit, which borrows that super convenient hatchback design from the Z-series suits.

Sciency Words: Orthofabric

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we explore the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


If you’re planning to spend any amount of time floating around in outer space, you need to dress appropriately.  You’ll need protection against solar and cosmic radiation.  You’ll need protection against extreme temperatures, both extreme cold and extreme heat (direct sunlight in the vacuum of space can make things super hot super quick).  Oh, and there are lots of tiny micrometeoroids whizzing about up there.  You’ll need protection against those too.

Around the same time that the space shuttle program got going, NASA started using a new fabric for the outermost layer of their spacesuits.  That fabric is still used today for spacesuits aboard the International Space Station.  It’s called Orthofabric (sometimes spelled with a hyphen: Ortho-fabric).

Orthofabric is made by a company called Fabric Development Inc., based in Quakertown, PA.  Orthofabric is made using three different synthetic fibers: Gore-Tex, Nomex, and Kevlar.  As reported in several research papers (like this one or this one), Orthofabric consistently holds up well against the harsh conditions found in space.  That’s why NASA keeps using it.

For these Sciency Words posts, I think it’s important to say something about the etymology of the word we’re talking about, but I had an extremely hard time finding any sort of etymology for this one.

The prefix “ortho-” comes from a Greek word meaning righteous, virtuous, or pure (hence the word orthodox).  “Ortho-” can also mean upright or straight (hence the word orthopedic).  But what do either of those meanings have to do with Orthofabric?  The prefix “ortho-” also has a specialized meaning in chemistry, but based on my research, the chemistry sense of “ortho-” didn’t seem relevant to Orthofabric either.

So finally, I picked up the phone, called Fabric Development Inc., and asked.  I was told the name Orthofabric was chosen after some back and forth consultation with NASA.  The name doesn’t mean anything in particular.  It’s just a name.  I guess somebody thought it sounded good.  End of story.

P.S.: NASA’s new Perseverance rover will be searching for life on Mars, but as a little side experiment Perseverance is also carrying a small sample of Orthofabric, along with samples of other commonly used spacesuit materials.  NASA wants to see how well these spacesuit materials hold up in the windy and dusty Martian environment.

Super Sexy Spacesuits

The spacesuits of today are cumbersome and uncomfortable.  Worst of all, they’re not stylish.  As a science fiction writer/illustrator, I want my characters to look good when they’re blasting through the vacuum of space, fighting bad guys and ridding the galaxy of evil.  Fortunately, NASA researchers have provided me with a realistic (or at least plausible) excuse for dressing my characters the way I want.

It’s something I call the super sexy spacesuit, but the people who are actually developing the technology call it a mechanical counterpressure (M.C.P.) suit.  Spacesuits today are basically body-shaped spaceships, and the whole interior needs to be pumped full of air to replicate atmospheric pressure. The big selling point for M.C.P. suits is that you wear them like regular clothing.

Almost.  They’re a lot tighter than regular clothing.  Not the way Spandex is tight.  No, they’re way tighter than that.  The fibers in the cloth are supposed to constrict on command, squeezing your body—squeezing so hard they end up exerting one atmosphere’s worth of pressure on your skin.

When you’re in space, you won’t notice that pressure. You’ve lived your whole life under one atmosphere’s worth of pressure, so you’re used to that.  The suit should feel like a second skin, providing you all the comfort and flexibility of being naked (and perhaps the body image anxiety as well).

You’ll also be safer, at least in one sense, because minor damage to the suit wouldn’t cause catastrophic depressurization, the way it can with a contemporary spacesuit.  However, there are still a few parts of the body where mechanical counterpressure won’t work so well. Fingers and toes, and all the small bones of the hands and feet, are really, really not meant to be compressed in this way.  The same is true for your face and head, and mechanical counterpressure in the groin area could also be problematic.

But still, in the future some sort of M.C.P. spacesuit might be a plausible option, not just so we can survive in the vacuum of space but so we can look good doing it.

Or you could forego spacesuits all together and do this instead: