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Fashion in outer space: Who needs chic in a shuttle?

Of all the great achievements of the space program, sartorial excellence will not be remembered as one of them.

Fashion, the final frontier.

Blastoffs into space may not be the novelty they were 20 years ago, but that doesn't mean the nation has abandoned notions of space as an exotic place. Born and raised on space adventures from Buck Rogers to Star Trek, the American collective consciousness has been conditioned to expect an other-worldly style from the brave explorers.

Take a look at the in-flight uniforms of NASA's shuttle astronauts; they come across more like Walter Mitty at a backyard barbecue.

Inside the orbiter, the crew wears shorts, long pants, T-shirts or rugby shirts, said Barbara Schwartz, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokeswoman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"The crew usually chooses what they want," she said. They have a choice of colors, styles and logos.

The matching shirts, in common Earthling styles, are emblazoned with the name of the orbiter and the number of the mission. The seven-member crew of the shuttle that orbited from Jan. 22 to 30 comprised the Discovery STS 42, the 42nd space transportation system. (It was actually the 45th flight, but scheduling complications sent up Discovery STS 42 instead.)

If they wear a lucky sweat shirt from college, the world likely won't see it.

"If they have an official in-flight press conference, they wear an official crew T-shirt," she said.

The most high-tech outfit the astronauts wear inside the science module and crew cabins of the shuttle is an orange flight suit made of Nomex, a fire-retardant material. The partly pressurized suits are worn over their civilian clothes during launch and re-entry.

"When they are up there in an orbiting environment, there is no requirement for a life-support system. As long as you can breathe, there is no need to have a bulky space suit that can be cumbersome," said Don Haley, a spokesman at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Facility at Edwards Air Force Base.

While the seeming lack of attention to fashion details may seem like a NASA blunder, the mission's creators may be more clever than we ever thought.

"I think the underlying impression is that space is easily accessible and a safe environment," Haley said.

William Ware Theiss would have to agree. Theiss is the costume designer who 25 years ago created the space suit "pajamas" and alien outfits for the original crew of the cult TV classic Star Trek. He is even being honored with a six-month exhibition of costumes at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., starting Feb. 28.

"Maybe it's a good idea that the astronauts are more humanized," Theiss said from his Los Angeles-area home. "Maybe NASA wants the country to identify with the astronauts as much as possible."

Theiss said it is unnecessary to dress the astronauts in something rather more sci-fi.

"I think it is frivolous. I like the down-to-earth quality of what they are wearing," he said, no pun intended.

As for how his Star Trek costumes influenced the American, if not global, idea of whatspace would look like decades hence, Theiss is similarly humble.

"Everything I did was a lie. There was no other way to do it," he said.

"You just did it in the most convincing way you could. I tried to imply technology with the fabric without being specific about it."

For example, Theiss might quilt or stitch fabrics to make them look other than of this world.

"In the beginning, I was very determined not to use metallic fabrics. I found quickly I didn't stand a chance of not using metallic fabrics _ because anything else looked like normal fabric.

"But I just didn't want them to be corny," Theiss said.

Maybe some of what Theiss calls the POP, or Princess of the Planet, costumes look a bit dated, what with their 1960s mini-skirts and basket-weave hairdos. But, for the most part, the simple costumes of the crew remain a classic example of their era, said Mary Henderson, curator of art for the air and space museum.

Star Trek is an important cultural artifact of the '60s," she said. "We are trying to show what was going on in the '60s that influenced that particular vision (of space). We talk about the Cold War, civil rights, attitudes toward women and that kind of thing," she said.

Whether Star Trek influenced the NASA designers or not, Henderson wouldn't say, but both NASA astronauts and Trekkie aliens alike wear orange jumpsuits.