This article originally appeared online in RealClearLife.
Ted Southern may be the best space tailor in the universe. Surrounded by spools of thread, other-worldly bobbins and walls lined with the suits of astronauts past, Southern works from a modest warehouse tucked away in the labyrinth of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City. Upon meeting him, you’d be forgiven for not realizing that Southern, who stands tall but unassuming, is contracted by the world’s greatest space agency to propel humankind farther than ever into the cosmos.
“It’s a weird space to occupy, directly competing with the military industrial complex as a couple of guys, but I think the industry and NASA need that,” Southern told RealClearLife about his business, Final Frontier Design, during a recent visit to the studio. “They need competition, they need innovators that are outside of this strict engineering world, different viewpoints and ideas about how the body works.”
Southern certainly has an alternate perspective — he hails from another dimension entirely. As a costume designer with Izquierdo Studio, he worked on Broadway shows, movies and televised events for more than a decade, including christening the angels with their wings for several of the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Shows. It was while working at his “dream job” that he returned to school for a master’s in sculpture— and decided as his degree was coming to an end that he’d enter into NASA’s 2007 Astronaut Glove Challenge.
“As I was making costumes it was more and more about the engineering and the mechanics and the electronics,” Southern recalled. “I had several hand injuries that particularly affected my functionality as a musician and as an artist. Hand functionality and anatomy became my focus.
“It just seemed like the perfect conceit for my thesis show.”
Though he didn’t place in the challenge, Southern says that this is “where the story really starts.” Another competitor by the name of Nikolay Moiseev needed a ride back to the city when the competition wrapped — and Southern had a car.
“I had a heart to heart with this Russian space suit engineer who I thought I’d never meet again,” Southern said. “It was exhilarating and exciting, and I said goodbye to him at JFK, and I thought that was it.” What Southern didn’t yet know is that he and Moiseev would return to the competition in 2009 for another glove challenge. This time, they won $100,000 in prize money — plus invitations to D.C. and Houston to tout their tech and take it to the next level. The two continued working together until making it official and starting Final Frontier Design in 2011.
“It was a massive change from my life as a freelance costumer,” Southern said. “To go into government contracting and aerospace engineering was like hitting a wall — but a very rewarding and productive one. And terrifying,” he added. “Space suits are considered weapons by the Department of State, and so working internationally created all kinds of issues.”
And so comes the weight of the work that Southern and Moiseev have their hands in on a daily basis. Used to pressure — Southern once watched a pair of his angel wings fail from backstage while standing next to Jay-Z — these designs aren’t donned by top models strutting to the end of a runway. At the end of the day, there are lives on the line, and the pressure is palpable.
“I have said it before that I think astronauts are bigger prima donnas than supermodels,” Southern joked. “Not true as a rule, but astronauts are the consummate professionals. They know a lot. And so for me, it has been much more nerve-wracking to work with engineers and astronauts at NASA than it was working at Victoria’s Secret.”
The budgets are bigger, the contracts are longer, the stakes are higher — and Southern noted that even though consumers can’t currently go to space, they’ll soon be able to, and Final Frontier Design is preparing with a flight ready suit.
“With [commercial space flight] comes the need for suit that I don’t think can be well met by the two companies that build space suits now,” Southern said. “They’re just not commercially oriented, they really are government contractors, and I think the commercial industry needs options.”
As a consumer, you don’t have to wait for options. If you’re interested in trying Final Frontier Design’s latest prototype gloves, contributing actual data to its live testing environment or donning a commercial pressurized space suit yourself, you can book a private meeting for $795 with Southern and Moiseev in their studio at any time.