Albert McKeon

Aug 26th 2019

Space Travel Calls for Flexible and Protective Aerospace Textiles


Astronauts not only have the privilege of exploring space, but they look cool doing it. Anyone who has dreamed of leaving Earth has visualized slipping on an astronaut’s standard gear of pure white spacesuit, reflective helmet and black boots.

But space travel is about more than looking good. It’s also about surviving against all odds and successfully completing the mission. That’s why astronaut gear is designed to be practical and tough, giving space travelers comfort and a sense of security. It’s also why aerospace textiles in general are durable and flexible. These materials shape essential components that can’t wither when exposed to the extreme conditions of space travel. They’re the backbone of everything from spacesuits and inflatable habitats to antennas and rovers.

Just as aerospace technologies constantly evolve, materials for space also keep taking new forms so that astronauts can achieve their goals with ease and confidence.

Designing for Comfort and Safety

NASA fully recognized the dangers of space travel in 1967 when the three-member crew of Apollo 1 — the first piloted mission of the Apollo program — died in a fire during a launch pad test. The tragedy led to many significant changes to NASA spacecraft and the attire of astronauts, including the introduction of PBI textiles. Non-flammable and stable at high temperatures, PBI found its way into astronaut flight suits, webbing, tethers and other space gear. Success in the stars led earth-bound agencies such as fire departments and the U.S. military to use PBI in gear.

Decades later, fire safety is still paramount. With the interior atmosphere of the International Space Station (ISS) closely mirroring Earth, the fibers of astronaut clothing have to char during a fire, instead of melting and dripping into human skin. But NASA also had a problem with cotton — the material most used for astronaut clothing in the past. Cotton lint interfered with the onboard air filters of the ISS, so yarns made of multifilament fibers are now preferred.

As NASA itself highlights, textiles are the oldest engineering material and are a source of unique properties that are conducive to space travel: light in weight, flexible and a high strength-to-weight ratio. The best features of textiles can also mesh to create composite structures. NASA, for instance, has a patent on carbon fiber reinforced phenolic composites that offer optimal thermal protection from the high heat of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Textiles make missions easier inside and outside the spacecraft. For extravehicular activity — “EVA” in NASA parlance — textiles are behind thermal insulation blankets, inflatable structures and tools such as restraints and tethers. Inside the ship, textiles make up bag and storage containers, a sleep station’s cushion and cover, a harness for an exercise treadmill and, of course, clothing.

Space Is a Booming Textile Market

With several government agencies and private companies racing to again explore the moon, visit Mars for the first time and travel farther into deep space, the market for aerospace textiles is larger than ever, leading to more experiments and more creations.

For example, space industry customers of Composite Fabrics of America (CFA) have increased orders for the company’s carbon fiber textiles. “Carbon fiber is very strong and durable. It starts as a textile, but when it’s encapsulated in a resin and cured, it holds a shape, yet it is very lightweight. That makes it an excellent solution for aerospace use,” CFA’s executive director of sales told the non-profit Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI).

Because missions vary, Clark Co., a developer of space suits since NASA’s Gemini program, takes different approaches to the design of materials for space. To keep costs low, it takes advantage of CAD modeling and uses prototyping before manufacturing.

“Inside the suit, you are essentially in your own personal spacecraft,” a company design manager explained to IFAI. “It needs to be airtight yet selectively permeable to allow water vapor to escape…We use low-elongation fabrics that will hold their shape while allowing people to move. You have to design the suit from the inside and understand what the user is feeling. If the suit isn’t optimally sized or is designed improperly, it can be pretty painful when it is pressurized.”

Mars Needs Origami and Metals

Because of the flexibility, durability and adaptability of textiles, all sorts of applications are possible in space. And as seen with Clark Co., it helps that modern technology allows textile designers to be creative before spending large sums of money on manufacturing.

For instance, a collaboration between research organizations and a textile studio — known as MoonMars — is integrating origami structures and digital weaving to create inflatable human habitats and research stations on the moon and Mars. “Origami structures made of textiles can be unfolded into a myriad of different shapes,” the head of MoonMars said. “They are lightweight. They can be easily deployed and re-used in different configurations and sizes for flexible spatial usage.”

NASA, meanwhile, invented technology that uses 3D weaving techniques to create textiles that have a specific use in space, increasing the chances the materials will thrive because they are specific to a mission. But a focus on specificity hasn’t stopped NASA from thinking outside the box. A NASA systems engineer whose mother was a fashion designer is creating woven metal fabrics to potentially be used for large antennas, meteorite shields and other uses in space. Think about it, the catwalk is influencing a spacewalk.