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Outfitters for the space rush

During the California Gold Rush, the folks who reliably made money were not necessarily the miners – but the outfitters who sold shovels and other supplies to those miners. It could well be the same for the rush to private-sector spaceflight: At least that's the rationale behind Orbital Outfitters, a new venture that aims to lease spacesuits and other equipment to private rocketeers.

"You see through my evil plans," the company's chairman and president, longtime space advocate Rick Tumlinson, joked when I reminded him of the Gold Rush connection. "There was this guy named Levi Strauss who showed up during the Gold Rush..."

Levi, of course, went on to make a name for himself in the blue-jeans business - and Tumlinson and his team hope to do the same in the private-sector spacesuit trade. As outlined in their launch-day news release (PDF file), they already have set up a contract with California-based XCOR Aerospace to deliver the first batch of Industrial Suborbital Space Suits (or IS3 suits) next year.

XCOR's chief executive officer, Jeff Greason, said his company would work closely with Orbital Outfitters to come up with the suit design.

"While traditional pressure-suit providers make great products, their current suits did not meet our unique specifications for use by a variety of spaceflight participants," the release quoted Greason as saying. "Orbital Outfitters has found an innovative approach that can meet our price and performance requirements."

Tumlinson said the suits would be produced in the Los Angeles area, by a team headed by Oscar-winning designer Chris Gilman, who is Orbital Outfitter's chief executive officer and chief designer. It turns out that Gilman has designed spacesuits before - for such movies as "Space Cowboys" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

But in contrast with those faux suits, the IS3 will be a serious piece of work: The specifications call for the suit to provide life support functions for 30 minutes or longer at 500,000 feet - while also providing mobility and comfort. Even though the first applications will be for suborbital rather than orbital flights, Tumlinson said passengers as well as crew members will expect maximum safety as well as a suit that looks good.

"These people are paying $100,000 to $200,000 to fly," he noted. "They want to look cool."

The first suits will be custom-built for suborbital test pilots. "We're leasing, not selling," Tumlinson said. A typical lease for a crew suit might run for six months or 100 flights, for tens of thousands of dollars over the term. The passenger version of the suit probably won't have as much mobility, and would be leased on a one-time basis for thousands of dollars, Tumlinson said. (That cost would likely be rolled into the flight operator's package cost.)

"When someone puts on an IS3, they will be protected by the best technology we can muster, yet they will look like they stepped off the set of a science-fiction movie," Tumlinson said in today's release. "In fact, we are going to offer customers the chance to buy the outer layer of their suit as souvenirs, which will have a NASCAR/Grand Prix look to them in the colors of the rocket firm on which they flew."

Tumlinson told me Orbital Outfitters might even offer "me-too" sportswear, modeled after the spacesuits but marketed to the general public.

Some suborbital companies, such as Rocketplane and Virgin Galactic, are hard at work designing their own space fashions. But Tumlinson hints that other companies are preparing to join XCOR in outsourcing this part of the new space race to Orbital Outfitters. And who knows? Someday the company may make good on its name by providing orbital flight suits as well as suborbital duds.

"I would love to do Bigelow's spacesuits, for example," Tumlinson said.

For years, Tumlinson has been an agitator for what he calls the "New Space" movement, aimed at getting entrepreneurs more involved in the final frontier. Orbital Outfitters represents the first subsidiary spawned by Tumlinson's XTreme Space Inc., and thus his first effort to put his finances where his philosophy has been.

Just as Levi Strauss didn't have to be a miner to make money in the Gold Rush, Tumlinson hopes his venture will show that you don't have to be a rocket scientist to make money in the new space rush.

"Everybody doesn't have to build a rocket," he said.