A week ago, history was made as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon became the first commercially owned/built spacecraft to ferry humans into space. And those humans definitely looked the part. From the moment astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley stepped into view in their SpaceX spacesuits, they evoked huge reactions. Gone were the bulbous and cumbersome diving bell-like creations we had been used to for decades. Just like Dragon itself, with its touch-screens and smoothly elegant lines, these suits were slick, dynamic, and comfortable. They looked like the future.
Which is exactly what SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk wanted. He wanted kids to look at Behnken and Hurley in their sci-fi outfits and be inspired. You know what else inspires kids? Comic book superheroes. So it’s no coincidence that the man who designed the SpaceX suits has been dressing the likes of Batman, Wolverine, and Black Panther for years.
As reported by The NY Times, Jose Fernandez was the man hired by SpaceX to design their suits, having come from a well-established career in Hollywood as a costume designer/makeup artist/VFX artist since getting his start as a sculptor on 1984’s Gremlins. Since then, Fernandez went on to work on more major blockbuster productions like X-Men 2, Daredevil, Planet of the Apes, Hellboy, X-Men: Apoclaypse, Fantastic Four, Marvel’s Black Panther and Thor, and much more. He was also the lead costume sculptor on Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. However, it was his latest work on the Dark Knight that would prove the most important for the next step of his career.
In those early Batman movies, nailing the comics-accurate silhouette of the Dark Knight always came with one major drawback: The actor wearing the costume could laughably never turn their head independent of their shoulders. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy got around this problem by having Christian Bale’s bat-cowl be independent of the rest of his costume for full mobility even though it broke with traditional design. When it came time for Ben Affleck to become the Bat in Batman v Superman though, director Zack Snyder didn’t want to choose between form or function. He wanted a costume pulled straight from Frank Miller’s comic book art, but with no loss of mobility. And Fernandez made that happen by coming up with a brilliantly segmented, bendable design for the neck portion of the cowl that kept its iconic single-piece shape but allowed Affleck full range of motion with his neck and head.
When Elon Musk approached Fernandez soon after in 2016 as one of six potential candidates for this gig (hilariously, Fernandez admits that at the time “I didn’t know what SpaceX was”), it was this very same Batsuit tech that helped him design a revolutionary new space helmet, that integrated comfortably into the rest of the suit, in just two weeks. Fernandez got the job and spent the next six months working with Musk to design a full suit that matched the tech mogul’s idea of a space “tuxedo”. According to Fernandez, Musk’s creative touchstone was always that “Anyone looks better in a tux, no matter what size or shape they are,” and SpaceX wanted that for their astronauts. They needed these suits to represent that idealized human warrior body shape, just like superheroes, instead of the puffy “Michelin Man” designs of past spacesuits.
When space was solely the domain of government-funded institutions, astronauts only needed to be safe, not look attractive to investors and the wider public. So while Fernandez and Musk clearly had functionality in mind for these suits, they were designed to look appealing first and then SpaceX actually reverse-engineered the raw mechanics and needs of spaceflight into them. While all kinds of vacuum safety protocols are built into them, these suits were never meant for extended extra-vehicular operations meaning that Fernandez could eschew all the dangling piping and blocky components of oxygen supply, cooling, and communications in his design. That also made them far comfier for the astronauts whether undergoing the crushing thrust of takeoff or the zero-g of space. They were also able to easily get into and out of the suits by themselves without too much hassle within the confines of the Crew Dragon cockpit.
The result of all of this, as I mentioned before, is the future. A shiny, sleek, comic book future filled with possibility. As impressive as SpaceX’s flight to the International Space Station was, by mixing in a little space-age romanticism along with their engineering wizardry, Musk, Fernandez and the rest of the team involved in this endeavour have launched the imaginations and enthusiasm of millions around the world into the stars.
Last Updated: June 4, 2020