Style in Space: The superficiality of the public vote in NASA’s new mission to attract audience-designers

Space is becoming increasingly commercialised. With competition from private investors, NASA are no longer the de facto masters of the universe. NASA have sought public engagement to counteract competition from corporations including Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Their latest initiative invited audiences to vote on the design of their new generation of spacesuit. This has led to a requirement for NASA’s designs to incorporate elements of contemporary fashion.

NASA launched a website dedicated to a public vote on their next generation of space attire. The website offered a selection of 3 spacesuits, inspired by themes of biomimicry and trends in wearable technology [1]. These are the latest in NASA’s Z-series of Spacesuits. The previous suit, the Z-1, was named one of Time Magazines best inventions of 2012, thanks to its ground-breaking application of 3D printing in the formation of impact-resistance structures [2]. This design was lauded primarily due to its innovative functionality. The Z-2, incorporates these same technologies and, crucially for voters, it also looks stylish.

In terms of basic structure and functionality, the three designs offered to voters are identical. The designs are only differentiated by superficial aesthetic elements. The Biomimicry suit contains an electroluminescent wire which decorates the suit in low lighting conditions; the Technology suit incorporates a bold chest insignia; and the Trends in Society suit – the most overtly superficial of them all – is “reflective of what every day clothes may look like in the not too distant future”, taking inspiration from sportswear.

NASA Z-2 suit

The ‘Biomimicry’ suit incorporates patterns of electroluminescent wire, inspired by aquatic creatures.

NASA z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Technology’ suit features a chest-insignia

NASA Z-2 spacesuit

The ‘Trends in Society’ suits takes inspiration from sportswear.

The superficiality of these choices invites questions about limits to the audience’s expertize, and the importance of aesthetics in an increasingly commercialised field. NASA have had to negotiate the conflict between the value of audience engagement and the fact that few audience members are qualified to make judgements about the suitability of spacesuits for extra-terrestrial environments. It is reasonable to assume that most voters have no experience of space travel, and are far less qualified than NASA employees to make informed decisions about the functionality of any particular spacesuit. Therefore, in order to offer voters an ostensibly significant level of audience involvement, their influence must be restricted to superficial aesthetic elements. This has forced NASA designers to consider style.

The consequence of this vote is that NASA suits are beginning to incorporate elements of fashion. It has become necessary for the suits to mirror trends in contemporary fashion design, drawing on contemporary trends for vibrant colours and sportswear, combined with visions of the future in recent sci-fi film costumes.

Functional aspects of the suit are, arguably, more essential than aesthetic aspects. However, in the eye of the untrained beholder, it is mostly the stylistic aspects that differentiate one design from another. It is this apparent importance of style, in contrast to the actual importance of functionality, which gives votes the impression of power and control. The historically-held notions about the “nobility of sight” have caused audiences to assume the primacy of visual features. Stylistic decisions may therefore appear more important than they actually are, giving voters the impression that they are contributing significantly to the future of space exploration.

Further questions are raised about why the general public are more qualified to make decisions about fashion than about technology. Why is it that a layperson is trusted to select an element of style but not an element of utility? Style, like all fashion, is essentially frivolous [3]. The suit serves its purpose regardless of its appearance. NASA’s invitation to voters is therefore essentially worthless to astronauts, but vital to the public perception that they are engaging with their audience. In an increasingly commercialised industry, NASA must stay ahead of the game not just in technical innovation but also in terms of public image. They must present themselves alongside reality television and the numerous other commercial ventures that use public votes to direct their decisions.

References:
[1] Holpuch, Amanda, ‘Nasa says new spacesuit one small step towards sending mankind to Mars,’ The Guardian [online], 30 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/apr/30/nasa-spacesuit-zseries-new-design-mars
[2] NASA, ‘The NASA Z-2 Suit’, 2014. http://jscfeatures.jsc.nasa.gov/z2/
[3] Roche, Daniel, and Birrel, Jean, The Culture of Clothing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 502.

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3 thoughts on “Style in Space: The superficiality of the public vote in NASA’s new mission to attract audience-designers

  1. Pingback: Exhibit 2: NASA’s Z-series space-suit | The Costume & Culture Museum

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