Expedtion 31 displaying current space apparel (Credits: Don Pettit/NASA).

Expedtion 31 displaying current space apparel (Credits: Don Pettit/NASA).

While dealing with countless obstacles and technological challenges in preparation for a future long duration mission beyond Earth orbit, it seems as if scientists and engineers have forgotten about some rather mundane issues – such as astronauts’ clothes.

Busy trying to figure out real “rocket science” problems  – closed-loop life support systems, launchers more powerful than anything ever built before – the research teams probably didn’t consider the question of what the astronauts are going to wear as having crucial importance.

It hadn’t been until August of  last year, when one inquisitive professor of fashion and design overheard by sheer chance a part of a radio program discussing a possible future manned mission out of the Solar System, when durable space clothes came under scrutiny.  That inquisitive assistant professor was Karl Aspelund of the University of Rhode Island.

“It occurred to me that with current technology, the clothing worn onboard a starship would need to conform to very different needs and constraints than humans had encountered before.  Apart from design, questions of materials and construction, there are cultural, practical, and ecological issues that all become very pertinent as soon as you increase the scale of time and distance to this degree,” he says.

3D printing might bring about a breakthrough in clothing in space (Credits: 3D Printing Companies).

3D printing might bring about a breakthrough in clothing in space (Credits: 3D Printing Companies).

Having a background in design and anthropology, Aspelund soon found himself envisioning a multi-generational mission and the limitations such a venture would present from the perspective of clothes. Soon he became convinced that polo shirts and cargo pants worn by astronauts  today would not suffice – at least from the perspective of maintenance, hygiene, lifecycle and production.

“The current outfits for onboard wear are fine for their purpose. They are basically Earth-clothes with extra pockets and straps. I’ve only heard complaints about their behavior in zero gravity. What I’m seeing is not so much a redesigning of these, as a search for a way to clothe people within the constraints of a starship on a mission that will last for their lifetime,” he says.

Similarly to water, food, air, and waste, clothes will have to become an integral part of the closed-loop system. “They will have to be manufactured, cleaned, maintained, and recycled with very careful management of water, energy, and raw materials,” he says, pointing out the major difference between the situation of current missions to ISS and future deep space adventures – the impossibility of resupplying.

Currently, fresh clothes are brought to the ISS by resupply vehicles, while used apparel is simply loaded into the emptied capsule and sent to burn on reentry. Changing of clothes happens less frequently than one would probably like to do on Earth – T-shirts once a month, socks once a week.

Almost two years ago, NASA signed a contract with an Oregon-based company to develop a micro-gravity washing machine that might eventually offer astronauts more comfort. However, alternatives need to be explored – for example 3D printing of clothes.

The washing machine designed by  Oregon-based UMPQUA Research Company is being tuned for use in microgravity (Credits: UMPQUA).

The washing machine designed by Oregon-based UMPQUA Research Company is being tuned for use in microgravity (Credits: UMPQUA)that might address the problem. However, multiple ways need to be explored – for example 3D printing of clothes.

“It’s very early days in terms of what can be done right now, as the materials are not ideal, but in principle I think it is one of the solutions that should be front and center in our investigations,” Aspelund says. “Once we can produce something that behaves more like current textiles and can replace them, we’ll be off and running.”

Recently, Karl Aspelund received a $15,000 grant to dig deeper into the challenges of future space clothes. The so called “proposal development grant” from the University of Rhode Island’s Council for Research will fund the first stages of an undertaking of much larger scale.

“The idea is that someone with a new and viable but unfunded research question can use this as seed-money to prepare for much larger and longer-term research. We will, in this part of the project, isolate and address the numerous needs and constraints involved when sending humans into space for very long missions of years or decades,”Aspelund explains.

Aspelund and his three assistants will explore three main areas – design and technology, history and culture, and ecological implications of clothing in space. He believes that approaching the issue of clothing from the point of extremely high sustainability demands might eventually bring about many benefits to our life on Earth.

Karl Aspelund

Karl Aspelund, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design at the University of Rhode Island. His primary interests lie in examining the role textiles and design play in the creation of identity, the impact of the textile lifecycle on Earth’s environment, and how the design community can contribute to the goal of environmental sustainability. He is now turning toward investigating the design and cultural needs and constraints of clothing in long-term space exploration. Karl worked as an artist and designer for 20 years after graduating from the Wimbledon School of Art (1986,) with a degree in 3D design. Among other projects, he was head of the Department of Industrial Design at the Reykjavik Technical College in Iceland, before coming to URI in 1996. He completed a Ph.D. in 2011 in Anthropology and Material Culture from Boston University’s University Professors Program, where his dissertation was awarded the University Professors Edmonds Prize as the best dissertation of the academic year 2010-2011. Karl is the author of two design textbooks, “The Design Process,” (2006) and “Fashioning Society,” (2009.) The third, an introduction to designing, is due in 2013.

How to wash your clothes in space, watch below:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JfqdBJDNZc]

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Tereza Pultarova

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Tereza is a science and travel journalist and education documentary TV maker born and raised in the Czech Republic, currently residing in London, UK. After working six years in the Czech Public Service Television, she took a career break in 2011 to pursue an international experience. Holding a bachelor's in journalism and master's in cultural anthropology from the Charles University in Prague, plus a master's in space management from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, Tereza is a pretty versatile writer who always seeks new creative approaches.