The design firms pioneering space suit fashion

By Kim Gittleson
BBC reporter, New York

media captionThe designers of this space suit hope their profits will rocket with the growth of space tourism

Final Frontier Design wants to be the number one space suit designer for commercial space flights.

But with no private company yet to get a craft with passengers onboard into orbit, or even sub-orbit, how can you best endeavour to lead an industry that is still very much in an embryonic state?

Final Frontier's cramped headquarters are testament to the very early stage of its business sector.

It is based in a tiny studio in Brooklyn Navy Yard that can barely fit co-founders Ted Southern and Nikolay Moiseev, two assistants, and a few tables.

Bits of fabric and plastic tubing litter almost every available surface.

However, humble surroundings have not stopped the company from dreaming big about the future possibilities - and profits - of commercial space travel, which has already seen more than $1.4bn (£900m) of investment from companies including Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.

And that figure is expected to more than double over the next 10 years as commercial space tourism is set to become a reality.

An uncomfortable journey

Mr Moiseev, a former space suit designer for Zvezda, Russia's national space suit supplier, left his home country to strike out in the US.

image captionMr Moiseev knows a thing or two about space suits

He has tried on and tested almost every space suit ever designed, and was responsible for designing the suits worn by cosmonauts on Mir, the former Russian space station, and the crew of the current International Space Station.

But Mr Moiseev thinks that those designs are nothing compared with what lies ahead.

"In the near future a lot of people - tourists - any age, with different health conditions, will fly in space," he says.

"And the high operation pressure is a challenge for the space suit designer."

This is the issue that Final Frontier says it is hoping to solve: how to design a space suit, not for an astronaut, but for a normal person who just happens to be headed to outer space.

Mr Southern says: "Spaceflight is notoriously uncomfortable - tight, hot - and sometimes the spacesuits just make it worse.

"When they're pressurised they're hard to move, you need special liquid cooling garments generally for space suits, and they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Mr Southern.

"So that's what we're trying to overcome here, we're going for a suit that's lightweight, inexpensive, safe and also more comfortable than traditionally military style spacesuits."

Huge in the future

But first there's the small matter of money.

Mr Southern says: "A lot of rocket companies that are coming online now are hoping to fly 2014, 2015, 2016 - years out.

"So it's been a challenge for that reason finding funding, finding partners, and finding customers."

image captionPrivate flight companies are still in the testing stages

Although the pair first started dreaming and designing in 2007, after meeting at a Nasa-sponsored astronaut glove design competition (which they later placed at in 2009), they did not set up Final Frontier until 2010.

At first, Mr Southern poured in his extra earnings from his day job as a costume designer for Broadway shows and circus firm Cirque de Soleil, into the business.

"People always raise an eyebrow - 'Wow that's so different - props and costumes and spacesuits'," says Mr Southern with a smile.

"In fact I see a full continuum there. Failure was not an option on Broadway either."

Contracts with Nasa - to design radiation coating for fabrics and bits of space suits, including a pressurised elbow-and-shoulder assembly - provided Final Frontier with funding.

As did an agreement with zero2infinity, a Spanish company interested in exploring suborbital trips.

But in addition to traditional means, in June 2012 Final Frontier Design turned to crowd-funding website Kickstarter.

Using the $27,632 they raised on the site, they were able to build the "3G" suit, which is the third version of their lightweight space suit.

Meant to be worn inside the space capsule in case of a loss of pressure, it was unveiled this summer.

image captionMr Southern shows off Final Frontier's suit to Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden

Funding is not the only challenge: Final Frontier must also deal with competitors.

There are the established space suit manufacturers, like David Clark and Boeing, who have a long history of providing suits for Nasa.

Then, there are rival start-ups like Orbital Outfitters, which like Final Frontier features a founding team that includes space outsiders, such as a former Hollywood special effects artist.

Finally, there are the in-house space suit design centres at a number of the commercial space tourism companies, such as SpaceX, which is led by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.

Peter Homer, a private astronaut glove developer who started his own firm, Flagsuit (tagline: "Fits like a glove"), says there's more than enough room for everyone.

"Right now, there's not a lot of competition because there's no market," says Mr Homer, who is also collaborating with Orbital Outfitters. Mr Homer won the Nasa glove competition in 2007 and 2009.

"It's about trying to keep going and trying to keep moving the technology forward. I and others are kind of waiting for the customers to be ready for their space suits."

So Mr Southern and Mr Moiseev continue to wait, and build.

They've hired interns for the summer, who are busy testing various suit fabrics and gloves.

image captionPeter Homer, who designs astronaut gloves, thinks that competition is not yet an issue in private space suit design

For Mr Southern and Mr Moiseev, their unlikely partnership and even more implausible business quest, is not just about a business opportunity but also about the way they see the future.

"I see it as inevitable that the human race will expand beyond the surface of the Earth, it's unfortunately finite limited surface area here," says Mr Southern.

"I think it's pretty critical that we survive in these challenging environments."

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