The High-Tech Textiles of the Future Might Have Outer Space Origins

A new fabric combating the effects of weightlessness could transform clothing on Earth.

Alexander Gerst, the third German astronaut to visit the International Space Station will be testing high-tech textiles in space which has the potential to revolutionize extreme weather clothing. (Photo: European Space Agency)
Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. Her work has appeared in ForeignPolicy.com, BBC.com, Los Angeles Times, and TheAtlantic.com.

To better understand the "interaction between body, clothing, and climate" and take extreme weather wear to new heights, a new project is launching textiles into space.

German astronaut Alexander Gerst is heading for NASA's International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in May and will be conducting close to 40 unprecedented experiments with the "Spacetex" project using clothing in the weightless environment. 

The project's partners include textile and research giant the Hohenstein Institute, Switzerland's Schoeller Textile, and the German Aerospace Center.

Gerst will be wearing a T-shirt, a sweater, and both short and long versions of undergarments while he does daily physical exercise on the treadmill. As part of the Blue Dot Mission, Gerst will stay on the ISS for six months, in the company of Russian cosmonaut Maxim Viktorovich Surayev and NASA astronaut Gregory Reid Wiseman.

"It is hoped that the tests deliver essential information for developing new textile products for use in extreme climatic and physiological conditions on Earth," according to the Hohenstein Institute. "Equally as important, the data obtained should help optimize astronauts' clothing for future space voyages and long-term missions such as the approximately three year voyage to Mars that is planned for 2030."

Once the mission is complete, the findings could change the future of astronaut fashion as we know it.

Humans can cool down properly on Earth thanks to gravity, but in space, sweat can become an extremely hazardous byproduct. That's because the weightlessness causes body heat to collect in one place instead of dripping away from the body. This creates "water aura," which speeds up overheating and impedes functionality.

That's why clothing that absorbs sweat is essential. Astronauts currently wear an undergarment of liquid-filled tubes that remove heat to keep them cool.

"Spacetex" is hoping to expand on that technology.

Its textile absorbs sweat, transporting it away from the body without drying out skin. According to the project, this could offer astronauts "physical comfort like a second skin." The textile uses both spun and textured yarns, a combination that allows moisture to be transported between several layers and eventually evaporate.

Project leader Dr. Jan Beringer says results from the experiment can also contribute to the development of anti-microbial textile finishes that will minimize the odor formation that occurs as sweat is broken down by bacteria.

If the project is successful, the International Space Station, which designed a nifty system in 2008 that filters astronaut sweat and urine into clean drinking water, might have one less thing to transform into H20. 

There's potential for Earthlings too. 

"The finding from our 'Spacetex' project will be implemented in special garments for extreme environments to improve the comfort and performance of workers and 'normal' people here on Earth," says Beringer.

Athletes, firefighters, members of the armed forces, and catastrophe relief workers who are often in risky, extreme climate situations will be able to reap the rewards of the fabric. Down the road, the project's space-based findings will be translated into mass production of functional garments for better products here on Earth.  

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