Masculinities and/as Design: Exploring Space Suit Designs of Commercial Space Travel

Symposium Paper, with Eren İleri, 2022.

LINK ︎︎︎

“Masculinities and/as Design: Exploring the Space Suit Designs of Commercial Space Travel”, on 25 May 2022, with Eren İleri, in Masculinities in Design: Objects, Identities and Practices, 24 — 25 May 2022, online.

First group of astronauts announced by NASA for the Mercury Program.

S62-08774 (July 1960) --- These seven men, wearing spacesuits in this portrait, composed the first group of astronauts announced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). They were selected in April of 1959 for the Mercury Program. Front row, left to right, are Walter M. Schirra Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter. Back row, left to right, are Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. Grissom and L. Gordon Cooper Jr. Photo credit: NASA

Space archeologists have focused on the peculiar material culture of space exploration, looking into infrastructures such as launch sites and landing sites (Walsh & Gorman, 2021). The focus of this paper, space suits, are studied from the perspective of fashion design looking into their aesthetic transformation throughout the decades (Chang, 2021). However, considering that commercial space travel is a recent phenomenon, the space suits of passengers, and their designs, remain unexplored. Similar to how Haraway’s poetically formulated cyborg is an illegitimate offspring of military industrial complex (Haraway, 2006), the act of designing a spacefarer human, too, is historically embedded in the masculine endeavors and agendas, nevertheless full of contradictions. These contradictions manifest themselves at best in novel space suit design at the intersection of imaginaries of masculinities and regimes of utility.

In this paper, we are interested in how the spacefarer human body has been “designed” for the purposes of commercial space travel through various technologies of embodiment disclosing the “male desire of transcendence” (Mellström, 2020, p. 113). Our scope of analysis covers space suit designs by privately owned US-American spaceflight companies, namely, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, as currently only these companies offer commercial travel to outer space using their indigenous spaceflight infrastructures. Our data consists of the visuals of the space suit designs of these commercial spaceflight companies in popular media. For this paper, we analyze their visual and material qualities, their cultural connotations as they relate to masculinity norms as well as their relation to the cultural imagination of spaceflight as guidance on how hyper-masculine desires are articulated by the design of a human-machine hybrid exemplified by the space suit. Therefore, this paper explores the ways in which masculinity norms are both challenged and reproduced in the design of space suits in commercial space travel. By doing so, we aim to disclose the masculinities in design, and how masculinities are designed.