The dangerous levels of radiation that astronauts are exposed to beyond earth orbit remains a significant health challenge for deeper exploration of the solar system as well as a handicap in growing space tourism. Using industrial flat knitting machinery that’s typically used for making sweaters, Fabdesigns, a Los Angeles based company, has developed breakthrough protective space-wear that provides radiation protection for astronauts with a high-degree of flexibility and additional fire-resistance.
Sewing a spacesuit is in many ways identical to sewing a bra or girdle, the sewing machines and patterned templates are somewhat identical, yet the process is much more sophisticated. The tolerances allowed on a space suit is less than a 1/64th of an inch, which means that yard after yard of fabric is sewn to an accuracy smaller than the sewing needle’s eye. At the same time operators are asked to meet unprecedented precision, and are denied the traditional tools used to maintain sewing accuracy – pins and other fasteners. To a garment whose reliability depended on an impermeable rubber bladder, mechanical aids like pins are an inherently risky proposition. With many such quality requirements, it is obvious why a space suit cannot be manufactured outside a dedicated engineered facility. However that may not remain true for long.
Each suit panel is developed by Fabdesigns, and comprises of non-terminating yarns. The support areas of the fabric consist of several textile stitch areas of gradient levels of stretch elements, flex, rigid, and restrictive elements, which are integrated into the fabric by mapping the appropriate levels of motion or protection required. The knit stitching technique creates varying degrees of elasticity, rigidity, open channels, tunnels, and zones of specialized yarns integrated into the base fabric. Zones comprise of threads or yarns, which are isolated into specialized needs, using Kevlar, monofilaments, Spectra, silicon, or other specialty performance yarns knit into the fabric to enable that region to perform a combined protective, biomechanical range of motion, compression, and therapeutic element integrated into that single panel, or series of panels required completing a garment.
The base fabric of these zones comprises of a thin 5 yarn layered spacer. A spacer is a 3-dimensional fabric with two face sides and a yarn constructed hollow gap between the faces. The density of the spacer fabric can be varied along with its thickness, from 11 mm to more in the same fabric panel, depending on the protective measures needed to protect organs and range of motion.
The product offers the first multilayer spacer with 5+ layers that is knit entirely integrated and to shape with finished edges. The 5 elemental layers of the spacer are: a wicking stretchable fibre against the skin, a silver fibre backing the wicking fibre, a meta-aramid, a para-aramid, and a surface stretchable fibre. A sixth layer of carbon – antistatic, can be added inside the plush area of the space for additional protection. The 3-dimensional flat knitting allows production of these textile structures into a final desired shape such that there is no cutting and with very minimal waste.
One of several concepts by Fabdesigns submitted at the LAUNCH 2013, plans to address Space Adaptation Sickness (SAS) and muscle loss. It utilizes electro stimulation, with current applied, and sensors receiving data. Much like the function of knitted brace supports and some high-tech wet suits currently on the market, Connie Huffa, Fabdesigns President and textile engineer explains, this compressive garment combats lack of gravity by: increasing circulation and venous blood flow, delays exhaustion and muscle soreness, optimizes endurance, helps the body remove lactic acid faster, improves strength and power, and encourages positive posture like an orthopaedic training garment.
“The initial focus for our fabrication efforts is to meet NASA’s challenge of a potential space mission to Mars, since astronauts are exposed to many different situations that have the potential to cause irreversible harm to the body. This extremely hostile environment requires a sophisticated fabrication that will protect the wearer from hazards emanating from outer space, the space craft itself, and health problems from the human body’s reaction to antigravity conditions,” adds Connie. She further adds “We hope that the combination of highly protective materials, medical grade compression, sensory, and muscular activation techniques, that we use, will address the initial need at NASA for improved astronaut health and mobility, and that subsequent products described in our submission, will address the more civilian aspect for protective wear applications in extreme environments on earth.”