From Star Wars to Elon Musk's 'space tux' - the style journey of astronaut suits

Why the next generation of astronauts is the most stylish to date

What was once the race to space is now more like a fashion parade.

As seen in the first official crewed mission of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, the next generation of spacesuits are the most stylish to date.

Elon Musk, the billionaire behind SpaceX, has compared their design to a night out on the town, saying “everyone looks better in a tux".

Their futuristic look, inspired by superhero characters, is a far cry from the earliest models used by the pioneers of space travel back in the 1960s.

They even rival those portrayed in science fiction, and would not look out of place on a Hollywood set.

Here we take a look at some of the most famous spacesuits of the past 60 years – and a few that exist only in science fiction.

Vostok SK-1

Worn by Russia's Yuri Gagarin on his historic first flight into orbit in 1961. The Skafandr Kosmicheskiy, or literally "suit for space" was used until 1963 and was personally designed for Gagarin. Vostok cosmonauts would eject at high altitude on their return to Earth and then parachute the final stage.

Vostok SK-1 - The Vostok VZA ejection seat and SK-1 space suit, as used in Russian spacecraft Vostoks 1-5 in 1961, are displayed in London on September 17, 2015, during a press preview for the Science Museum's latest exhibition "Cosmonaut". The exhibition charts Russia's space programme, from early theories and predictions by artists and scientists through to recent work on the International Space Station. The exhibition is due to run from September 18, 2015 to March 13, 2016.    AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP)

Mercury spacesuit

When John Glenn became the first American in space in February 1962, he was wearing a suit essentially based on one used by high altitude test pilots.

The MK IV full pressure suit was developed for the US Navy in 1959, while the Nasa version featured a number of improvements including removing the rubber mask that fed oxygen to the astronaut's face, and gloves with curved fingers to allow them to better grasp the controls.

Berkut spacesuit

Most spacesuits are designed to be worn during the ascent and descent stages of flight and protect the wearer in case of accidental decompression.

For spacewalks, an EVA or extra-vehicular activity suit is needed.

For the first spacewalk, in March 1965, Russia's Alexei Leonov wore an adapted version of the SK-1. It was used just once and for good reason. The suit overinflated once in space, nearly preventing Leonov from getting back into his Voskhod capsule.

A7-L series

As worn by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to walk on the Moon in July 1969, the A7-L came in three versions, including one for flight and one for training. It was designed to resist the extremes of heat and cold on the lunar surface and its flexibility came from the help of a bra manufacturer.

Nasa turned to Playtex for the hand-stitched suits, and the brand's expertise in women's undergarments was used for the joints. A medieval suit of armour worn by King Henry VIII and displayed at the Tower of London was another design aid.

Versions of the A7-L were worn on all the Apollo and Skylab missions until 1974.

Extravehicular Mobility Unit

Introduced in 1981, this two-piece suit was designed for spacewalks of up to eight hours. For longer walks, it features what Nasa calls a Maximum Absorbency Garment – since no one can use the bathroom in space. EMUs have been on the International Space Station since 2000 and according to astronaut Doug Wheelock it "smells like a locker room."

"Pumpkin" suit

Challenger disaster in 1986, all of which retained the distinctive orange fabric, felt to stand out better against the blackness of space. It was adopted by Nasa for Space Shuttle missions after 1988.

International Space Station (ISS) crew member, UAE astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri waves as he boards the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft before its blasts off for the ISS, on September 25, 2019 at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  / AFP / POOL / Maxim SHIPENKOV

Sokol suit

Introduced in 1973 and still worn by astronauts on the Russian Soyuz to this day. This was the suit worn by the first UAE astronaut, Hazza Al Mansouri last year. All Sokol suits are made to measure, and are designed to protect the wearer against possible decompression.

They were adopted after the deaths of three Russian astronauts in 1971 when their capsule suffered a disastrous leak on re-entry. The suits are designed to fit the seats on Soyuz, which gives their wearer a distinctive hunched look when walking.

Chris Ferguson, Boeing director of crew and mission systems and a former astronaut, checks out the new, blue Starliner spacesuit in a mockup of the company's commercial crew spacecraft. Courtesy Boeing

'Boeing Blue'

Designed for the Boeing Starliner capsule, which hopes to make its first crewed flight in the new year. Along with SpaceX, Boeing has brought the private sector into space flight. Its blue flight outfit is said to be 40 per cent lighter than the old Nasa suits, and uses zips rather than clips to attach the helmet.

The must-have accessory are the blue and white boots designed by Reebok.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover reacts to family members as leaves the Operations and Checkout Building with fellow crew members for a trip to Launch Pad 39-A and planned liftoff on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon capsule on a six-month mission to the International Space Station Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

SpaceX Dragon suits

According to Elon Musk, he worked on the design for almost four years, saying it needed to look good as well as work well. The stylish one-piece outfit has a 3D printed helmet with a mechanical visor, built in microphones and touch sensitive gloves to work the controls.

Musk enlisted the help of Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez who had worked on superhero films like Batman v Superman and Fantastic Four.

"When people put this spacesuit on, he [Musk] wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tux. You look heroic in it," said Fernandez.

And a few from science fiction ...

Destination Moon

The spacesuits worn by comic book hero Tintin in Herge's 1950 Destination Moon feature the classic goldfish bowl helmet and bear a close resemblance to the Michelin Man character. They are unique in that one was designed for Tintin's dog Snowy, the first canine to go for lunar walkies.

A movie still from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction film '2001: A Space Odyssey' starring Gary Lockwood. Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece imagined a lunar base by the turn of the century and flights provided by Pan-Am, the airline that went bust in 1991.

What he did get right was the spacesuits, which would not look out of place on a SpaceX flight. They are so realistic that conspiracy theories believe Kubrick was brought in to fake the Moon landings for Nasa.

One of the suits sold for Dh1.4 million at auction this year.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885752x)
Sam J. Jones
Flash Gordon - 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Scene Still

Flash Gordon

The original space hero hero, Flash Gordon has worn a variety of suits since his creation in the 1930s, including the ubiquitous goldfish bowl helmet.

For the classic film from 1980, our hero was protected by nothing more than a singlet vest and a platinum blonde helmet of hair. Among the early directors rejected for the film was one George Lucas who decided to go off and create his own homage to Flash called Star Wars. Which bring us to...

The Stormtrooper

Perhaps the coolest suit ever, as worn by the legions of bad guys in space combat for the Star Wars franchise. They may look great, but the outfits are surely the most useless ever made, causing the wearer to instantly drop dead when hit by even the weakest ray-gun shot from Han Solo.