For the last three years, one professor at the University of Rhode Island has been investigating the needs and constraints of clothing and textiles necessary for long duration space travel.
“The actual investigation relies on first of all knowing what the needs are,” Karl Aspelund, assistant professor in the department of textiles, fashion merchandising and design, said. “I’m doing an investigation into a problem for something that hasn’t really existed yet.”
Aspelund started this project at the end of 2013, after he became involved with an organization called 100 Year Starship (100YSS). Their mission is to “make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years.” The group hopes that they will be able to publish their findings and ideas into a type of manual so that people in future space travel will have an idea of the problems they will need to address.
One of the major problems that Aspelund has discovered in his investigation is making sure that everything is sustainable. With such large space expeditions, it would be very difficult and costly to resupply the astronauts with new clothing and anything else for the matter. Aspelund said that right now it costs $10,000 for each pound brought up to space. The future space vessels will be highly efficient and almost completely sustainable. By addressing this problem, Aspelund is helping to solve both sustainability problems in future space travel as well as here on earth.
“We have a project underneath the project,” Aspelund said. “If we can solve the closed loop ecosystem then we’ve solved it for Earth as well.”
Recently, the idea of long-duration space travel has become increasingly more popular, especially in regards to a future exploration to planet Mars. In his recent op-ed on CNN, President Barack Obama addressed this growing idea.
“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” Obama wrote.
Aspelund explained how the recent turn of events has brought this idea from a 100-year plan to suddenly a 20-year plan. Right now, Aspelund is hoping that in the 2030’s when that hypothetical ship leaves for Mars, that at least something of his investigation has contributed in some way.
“I’m definitely aiming that I have [a] concrete set of solutions actually well before the Mars expeditions,” he said.
As to what those solutions will be, Aspelund does not know as of yet. Just recently he has finished the first phase of his investigation.
“Much of what I’ve been doing the last couple of years is simply identifying the problems we need to solve as opposed to actually solving them,” Aspelund said. “I’ve managed to identify the field and… where the problems lie.”
Aspelund is addressing many problems in his investigation, some of which encompass what he calls “the laundry question.” He is delving into problems such as how to wash the clothes, how to make them, what to do when you rip your pant leg, and finally he will be addressing exactly what it is that you will be wearing.
With it being such an undiscovered field of study, Aspelund had to start from scratch and look at his investigation from a different perspective than one might think. Aspelund told his crew of students that have helped him with his investigation “we are not designing clothes; we are reinventing the concept of clothing.” Basically, he had to look at his investigation and imagine that humans had never worn clothing and that now in space they have to.
Right now, Aspelund is moving on to the second stage of his investigation. In this part, he will look at the human behavioral aspect associated with clothing and to start deciding what problems he has identified that are able to be solved in time for the future Mars expeditions.
“I’ve identified these various problems and now I’m going to have to start talking to astronauts and submariners and people who’ve dwelt for any length of time in Mars simulators or the Antarctic,” Aspelund said.
Aspelund is also in the process of talking with NASA about acquiring a grant that would assist his second phase of investigation. He is adamant, though, that “the project isn’t contingent on a grant from NASA. A grant from NASA would just make it go faster. I still need to do this [investigation] for the Starship Project.”
Though he will not see the end result of the Starship Project, Aspelund is comforted in the fact that his research will continue on past the time he will retire and will affect future long duration space travel.