Designing fashion-forward spacesuits

Posted: April 09, 2014

In outer space, an astronaut must worry about any number of things: radiation, flying debris, and extreme cold, to name a few.

And now, apparently, looking good.

That is the twist in three new versions of NASA's spacesuit of the future, crafted with the help of fashion-design students at Philadelphia University.

Out: baggy, white suits of the Neil Armstrong era.

In: sleek, metallic grays accented with LED lights and glowing "electroluminescent" wire.

Can the cover of Vogue be far behind?

The technical guts of the new Z-2 suit are the same in all of the designs, and are the responsibility of ILC Dover, a Delaware company that has engineered spacesuits since the Apollo missions. The students were enlisted to add aesthetic appeal, creating three different "cover layers" to spark public interest.

"NASA said, 'For this suit, we want something that really grabs people's attention,' " said Jinny Ferl, ILC Dover's design engineering manager for the $4.2 million project.

So far, it seems to be working.

More than 200,000 votes have been cast in online balloting at http://jscfeatures.jsc.nasa.gov/z2/, which continues through next Tuesday.

ILC Dover, in Frederica, is expected to build a working prototype by November.

Gabriela Canosa, one of two fashion-design students on the project, said the goals include a neat, trim appearance.

"We used color and shaping to trick the eye into thinking the suit is actually slimmer than it really is," said Canosa, a senior from Lancaster.

The joint effort came about through ILC Dover's long association with Philadelphia University, the former Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, said mechanical engineering professor Muthu Govindaraj.

A professor at the school worked with the company on materials for astronaut gloves long ago, and over the years, the company has hired students from the textile engineering and mechanical engineering programs. So when NASA came calling for a suit with visual appeal, ILC Dover turned to a school with both engineering and fashion expertise.

Canosa and fellow fashion student Cassandra Burr worked on the project with oversight from Govindaraj and Celia Frank, retired associate professor of fashion design. Senior mechanical engineering student Julia Mayer made sure the fashion elements were compatible with technical specifications - researching, for example, what sorts of accent lights would meet NASA standards for fire resistance.

The fashion elements are about more than just aesthetics.

The outer layer will be made of a rugged, fireproof material, designed to protect sensitive underlying electronics from abrasions as well as the prying eyes of anyone seeking to copy the technology, NASA spokesman Daniel Huot said.

Likewise, the LED lights not only look good but also enable crew members to see each other.

NASA is not requiring that the finished Z-2 prototype be equipped with full outer-space capabilities, such as radiation shielding, said ILC Dover's Ferl. It will be used only for testing on Earth, in a vacuum chamber at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A subsequent model, to be called the Z-3, would be tested at the International Space Station, Ferl said.

Still, the Z-2 boasts an array of space-age features.

ILC Dover's technical design calls for a rigid torso made of a rugged but lightweight carbon-fiber blend, a proprietary formula developed with the University of Delaware's Center for Composite Materials.

The Z-2 also can be custom-fitted to the astronaut, unlike the current suit worn on the space station by U.S. astronauts, which comes only in small, medium, and large. The Z-2 has fittings that can be telescoped in or out to accommodate different-size physiques, as well as pleated sections of soft material that can be gathered in as needed, Ferl said.

Finally, it is a rear-entry suit, meaning the astronaut climbs into it feet first through a port in the upper back.

That feature was added because the suit is intended for walking on the surface of a planet such as Mars. The suit would be mounted on the exterior wall of a spaceship or habitation module, and the astronaut would climb from inside the module into the suit, so he or she could come and go from the module without bringing dirt and debris inside, Huot said.

The three designs are dubbed "Technology," "Trends in Society," and "Biomimicry" - the last so named because the pattern is meant to evoke fish and reptiles.

Canosa, whose primary expertise is sportswear and casual clothing, got to present the ideas to NASA officials in Houston last fall.

"I really had no idea," she said, "that this would ever be in the path of my college career."

Fashion: the final frontier.


Voting on a Suit

NASA invites people to vote on three designs for the Z-2 space suit at http://jscfeatures.jsc.nasa.gov/z2/ . Balloting is open through next Tuesday, and the agency plans to announce a winner by the end of the month. After casting a ballot, voters can see a chart reflecting the current vote totals.


tavril@phillynews.com

215-854-2430

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