I grew up in a part of Minnesota that can have snow on the ground from late October into May. Temperatures have been known to hit minus-30° F. Or colder. When we played outside, we got a lot of exercise just moving at all in our snowsuits, scarves, hats, puffy mittens and snow boots. Playing outside in the snow was a lot of fun, even lurching about encased in warm clothing, so out we went.
We, as humans routinely put ourselves in environments that require protective clothing and gear, from work gloves to sun-shading hats. When we buy said protective products, we consider their function—that’s sort of a given—but we also expect good fit and comfort. Protecting yourself on a spacewalk, or from infection in a hospital, follows the same principles.
Right about now, the thought of climbing aboard a rocket and venturing off into space somewhere doesn’t sound too bad, given the state of things on planet Earth. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that wearing a mask for a trip to the grocery store is nothing compared to the protective suit you’d have to wear on your journey into space.
Strangely enough, there is an intersect between the protective gear, which we all know as PPE used to keep health workers safe from COVID-19, and protective suits required to keep space travelers safe. Not the same thing at all, but there is clearly one distinct similarity: those who wear PPE or spacesuits must be able to carry out their work in it. Simple, right?
Not at all, as it turns out. Our feature, “PPE on earth and beyond,” by Marie O’Mahony offers interesting comments straight from doctors and astronauts alike who participated in a seminar recently about the challenges shared by both “PPE.” The textile industry has been incredible in developing fibers, fabrics, composites and surface treatments that stop space dust or serve as pathogen barriers. That’s all great, but getting a spacesuit (or mask, or gown or gloves) that fit so well that neither surgeon nor astronaut will feel hampered in any way in performing their very exacting tasks is an even greater challenge.
But they do feel hampered, and that’s the problem to solve, once the proper material has been engineered and made available to designers and manufacturers. So, the conversation continues, new designs are being developed, and a connection among surprising colleagues is acknowledged.
Is it possible that a new spacesuit will inspire the next-gen children’s snowsuits?
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.