Back to the Future

Port Canaveral

3 June 2020

On Saturday 30 May at 3:22 pm EDT, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, reaching the International Space Station after a 19-hour journey. It is a first for this public-private partnership, which commenced in 2010. But while partnerships of this kind speak of the future, the styling of its spacecrafts and spacesuits are straight out of the 1960s.

The American Space Age began in earnest in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik 1 and 2 satellites in 1957. The US responded with Explorer 1 in 1958, with its subsequent endeavours culminating with the Apollo moon landing in 1969. The so-called space race was a key feature of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

In this context, space offered a new realm where design could be employed to focus on a utopian future. The Space Age aesthetic played out not only within government-funded space programmes, but also within interior design, architecture, fashion and film. “The space age was a philosophical construct, as well as a practical aspiration […] Harnessing new materials and technology, space-age designers explored radical concepts that challenged prevailing aesthetics and conventions, demonstrating creative ingenuity and technological awareness,” writes design historian Lesley Jackson in Design: The Whole Story.

The space age aesthetic was immortalised in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its sleek, minimal, shimmering setscome to mind when looking at the design of SpaceX’s spacecrafts and spacesuits.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft measures 8.1m long and 4m in diameter, giving the capsule a pressurised volume of 9.3cbm. The Crew Dragon, the spacecraft that was used in Saturday's take-off, is a four-seat capsule. “Everything is driven by function,” explained John Federspiel, a SpaceX engineer in a film released on Twitter. However, styling seems to have been just as important.

The interior components of the capsule are moulded from a lightweight composite material with a smooth, white finish. Black is used as an accent on both the foam upholstered seats, which are moulded around the astronaut’s body for comfort, and the footrests. SpaceX or NASA have not revealed any exact details on the materials used for the interior.

The Crew Dragon capsule is designed to fly autonomously and it is fitted with touchscreens in order to operate it. As such, there is an absence of buttons and levers, making the interior of the Crew Dragon significantly more minimal than previous spacecrafts, such as NASA's mechanically operated Apollo fleet. “We wanted this to feel like a 21st-century spaceship,” said Federspiel. “We wanted it to inspire another generation of astronauts.”

The interior of the Crew Dragon. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

However, despite the technological advancement of the spacecraft’s operation system, there is a decidedly less radical approach in the aesthetics of the Crew Dragon’s design. Instead, it plays into Space Age conventions.

The space suits have a decidedly retro styling. Each suit is custom-made to fit the two astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who flew in the Crew Dragon. The suits are designed to look like a two-piece, with a square-shouldered top and fitted bottoms, tucked into a black boot. They have touches of the futurist work of the French fashion designer André Courrège in the late 1960s.

It has been reported, and comes as little surprise, that the prototypes for the suit were created by costume designer Jose Fernandez who has worked on films such as Batman v Superman, The Avengers and X-Men II – the sense of “costume” is palpable in the design's nostalgia. “I personally spent a lot of time, it took us three, almost four years, to design these suits that both look good and work well,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk during NASA's live coverage of the first (aborted) launch attempt on 27 May.

A NASA blog post reported that the helmet is also custom-manufactured for each astronaut, using 3D-printing technology. It includes integrated valves, mechanisms for visor retraction and locking, and microphones. The suit is completed with touchscreen-compatible gloves to allow the pilots to use the on-board touchscreen system.

The Nasa blog post also reveals that the suit has “a flame-resistant outer layer and provides pressurization with a controlled environment for the crew in atypical situations, such as cabin depressurization. The suit also routes communications and cooling systems to the astronauts during flight.” For such a technologically advanced garment, it looks surprisingly simple and fitted, with any obvious gadgets completely absent. Rather than astronaut outfits of old, it rather brings to mind scenes from the bridge of the Enterprise in the original 1960s Star Trek series.

While new technologies have played a crucial part in customising both the interior of the ship and the garments to the individual, both clearly borrow from a utopian Space Age aesthetic of yesteryear – a 21st-century realisation of what could previously only be achieved through the fictional scenarios of film sets and catwalks.

The sleekness of this package is important at a moment that marks the beginning of a new funding model for US space exploration. Last week’s flight was the first launch of NASA astronauts into space from US soil since the retirement of NASA's space shuttles in 2011. It is likely to become a crowded space, with Amazon-founder Jeff Bezoz announcing last autumn that his space company Blue Origin is committed to achieving a landing on the moon in concert with NASA by 2024. Add to this the growing market for space tourism, with SpaceX having promised its first flights to the International Space Station for private customers at the end of 2021. These flights are set to use the same space shuttle and launcher as the ones used for last week’s flight.

The international space race of the mid-20th century has been replaced by a 21st-century successor that is largely being run by Silicon Valley tech companies. The increased customisation, and decreased visibility of integrated tech, of the surrounding apparatus is a clear nod in this direction. The “another generation of astronauts” that Federspiel referred to is perhaps not the professional astronaut which that comment first conjures. This flight was a step towards de-professionalising space travel, opening it up to a new market of the super wealthy.