Fashion for NASA

Post by: Crystal Compton



Crystal Speaking at NASA in Florida

January 22, 2013 a new semester of school began just like it always does, time for more classes, homework, studying, working on a project with NASA, typical-everyday-school-kind-of-stuff.

My first studio class of spring semester began bright and early at 8:30 am on the St. Paul campus, my classmates and I sat patiently in the classroom. My professor rushed through the door and exclaimed that we were to work on a project with NASA and that we had a teleconference with them in 30 minutes. We certainly were not gradually eased into the semester, the teleconference consisted of our mentors from NASA they introduced the projects that each group would each be assigned to work on for the entirety of the semester. The project that I was assigned was the “Suit Clearance/Wearable Sensors” project.

The spacesuit that they were currently using that the crew members wear during their extravehicular activity (EVA) trainings produced harmful injuries to the body because of all the heavy equipment that the suit entailed. EVA is any activity performed by a pressure-suited crew member in unpressurized or space environments. The physical relationship between the EVA suit and the body needed to be better understood in order to appropriately design the next generation of spacesuits. One approach is to detect and measure the spatial relationship (clearance, pressure, and collisions) between the body and suit. And that’s just what we did.

 The primary goal was to design a garment that would incorporate wearable sensors to detect aspects of the spatial relationship between the body and the EVA suit in the shoulder, back, and chest regions. Furthermore, this design must also be comfortable, non-invasive, and safe to use for the wearer. To start we researched everything that we’d have never dreamed was related to Apparel Design: engineering, electronics, science, gravity, physics, body parts, body injuries, and so very much more. After we had a concrete background of information we conducted myriad of different sensor tests that showed some degree of potential. We collected and analyzed our results, performed more testing, repeat, repeat, repeat, we started to narrow it down to the best ones. Once we finally determined the best sensors to use we then preceded forward in determining our final design. We decided to utilize a combination of two different types of sensors: soft-switches and force-sensitive resistors. We focused mainly on utilizing soft-switches and did so for many valuable reasons. These softs-witches are very easily self-made, very straightforward, relatively inexpensive, and also provide a soft cushion for protection. Due to these inherently great qualities it made it a perfect choice for us to use in our final design. The softs-witches that we made are calibrated to close at, or above a specific amount of pressure/force. We developed a technique for calibrating the soft-switches based on the diameter of the spacer perforation. The soft-switches are composed of a “spacer” (kitchen sponge, foam, whatever tickles your fancy) with a hole cut into it and two layers of conductive fabric. The conductive fabric acts as the hearty bread of a sandwich and is placed on both sides of the spacer, which acts as the creamy (not crunchy) delectable peanut butter. When enough pressure is applied to the area where the hole is the two layers of conductive fabric touch and a threshold is reached, signaling (at minimum) that a determined amount of pressure is being detected. Similar to the soft-switches, our other sensor, the force-sensitive resistor, detects pressure as well. However, instead of merely relying on a threshold amount, this one allows for localized measurements of a range of forces. We only incorporated a few of these sensors into our final design due to higher costs and because they utilize more rigid metallic components. However, by utilizing even just a few of them, it allows for specific pressure readings on the garment and the ability to be moved throughout the design if pressure is desired to be detected in another chosen location. For our wearable garment we decided to design one that is somewhat similar to an “over-sized sports bra.” We did this so it only covers the surface area of what is essential to be detected, without being too cumbersome or invasive. In order to incorporate our sensors into this garment we used a combination of stitching with conductive, as well as your typical 100% polyester, thread and using a fusing web to weld together conductive fabrics with a fabulous material called “Wonder Under.”

Force-Sensitive Resistor 2

Force Sensitive Resistor


On April 22, 2013 our entire class flew down to Houston, Texas to present our research and final designs to the NASA mentors at the Johnson Space Center. After our presentations we had booths set up with visuals and final designs for people to come by and ask questions. It was fascinating to see all the different projects other people and schools had been working on and what a variety of backgrounds were represented, such as mixing engineering with apparel design. Our mentors were beyond thrilled with our final results and even wanted to take us back to their lab that very day to test. Unfortunately due to time constraints we were unable to do so, but it was still so thrilling to see them so eager and astonished with what we’d come up with. Things that seem so simple and straight forward to us, such as zigzag stitching conductive threads onto knit fabrics to allow for further electronic connections in a garment, was intriguing to them, stitching and sewing machines aren’t really their forte.


Force-Sensitive Resistor and Placement of Both Sensors and Conductive Stitching 2

Force sensitive resistor and placement of both sensors & conductive stitching

Being able to work with NASA was a beyond exciting, but being able to also develop and integrate technology with Apparel Design put the experience over the top. It was quite interesting to see how opening up to new resources and backgrounds lead to really astonishing outcomes. Sometimes what is typical or has always been used is not always the best solution. Mixing a wide variety of different backgrounds and brainstorming allows for a new perspective and approach on any given problem. One lasting impression from this project is to never limit yourself, the possibilities that may seem too absurd or non-related might be the most successful. When I applied to the University of Minnesota many, many moons ago to pursue a degree in Apparel Design, using engineering to work with NASA was the very last thing that I expected to be doing. The future holds endless potential, especially in this area of study, and folks, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.


Editor’s Note: Sol Inspirations works with the University of Minnesota to develop photovoltaic fashion clothes and accessories. Click here for more information.




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