By Adam Welsch
July 20th has been a pretty busy day in the field of space exploration over the past five decades. In 1969, humans walked on the moon for the first time. In 1976, the Viking 1 Lander touched down on the surface of Mars and marked the start of human exploration of the Red Planet. And, in 1994, the world watched as at least four of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s twenty-three fragments crashed into Jupiter’s southern hemisphere, producing one of the most memorable cosmological events of the twentieth century. Given the importance of this day as it relates to outer space, it seems the right time to devote some of this blog’s attention to the types of underwear a female astronaut wears on her inner space when performing work that’s simply out of this world.
Fifty-four women have journeyed into space over the past forty-seven years. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was the first to do so, gaining that distinction in June 1963. American astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman to enter outer space, arriving there in June, 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. The first women to walk in space did so in 1984. Soviet Svetlana Savitskaya did so first, in July of that year, followed soon by American Kathryn Sullivan in October. In September 1992, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to fly in outer space; Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic-American woman to do the same, in April 1993. And, American Eileen Collins became the first woman to both pilot a space shuttle (in February 1995) and later command one (in July 1999).
When we picture these women hard at work, underwear is certainly not the first item of clothing that springs to mind. Rather, bulky white or orange spacesuits, with helmets and thick gloves, are the trademark apparel items of which most of us think. These are typically worn during launches, re-entries, and all extra-vehicular activities (such as moonwalks and spacewalks). But what kinds of undies are worn under those suits? The answer is definitely not ordinary, matching sets of bras and panties. Instead, women, like men, wear Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garments (LCVGs). These are body suits made principally from spandex and contain an astounding 300 feet of narrow tubing. This tubing circulates water around the astronaut’s body and allows the garment to perform its primary task – keeping the astronaut cool. In addition to the tubing, the garment contains vents that help draw sweat away from the body. The suit is so efficient that it recycles the astronaut’s sweat by drawing it into the water cooling system.
The other key item of underwear worn under spacesuits is the Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG). This is basically an adult diaper that holds up to 2000 ml of body fluid. It contains sodium polyacrylate, a chemical that absorbs 400 times its weight in water. Since astronauts wear their spacesuits during the most critical events of space missions, and these events can last for many hours, there’s obviously no opportunity to remove the suits and use the facilities.
Of course, most of an astronaut’s time in space is spent attending to routine day-to-day activities, such as running tests and gathering data, exercising, eating, and sleeping. During those times, she wears clothes similar to those she would wear when performing those activities on Earth. As a result, NASA allows its astronauts to choose their own bras, panties, and socks, along with long-sleeve shirts, pants, and sweaters, for everyday wear, and T-shirts and shorts for working out.
Whether on two-week space shuttle missions or space station assignments lasting many months, astronauts don’t have the luxury of being able to wash their clothes. Water is a precious resource, and the amounts carried on board can only be used for drinking and bathing. So how is underwear usage affected? The answer is somewhat different depending on the type of mission being considered. Due to the relatively short duration of space shuttle missions, crew members are able to stock sufficient numbers of undies to be able change them each day.
It’s a different story for those who must live and work aboard the space station. There simply isn’t enough room to store daily changes of undies for every astronaut. As a result, each astronaut can only change her bras, panties, and socks every other day. What’s interesting is that few clothes brought on board the space station ever make it back to Earth. After undies have been worn, for example, they’re put in bags and placed in the re-supply vehicle that brought the last crew member, or load of supplies, up to the station. Before the next re-supply vehicle arrives, the old one is jettisoned from the station and allowed to drift into Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate. Thus, all of the astronauts’ dirty undies burn up hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface.
In 2008 and 2009, two Japanese male astronauts tested a new kind of underwear, called J-wear, made from fabric designed to be anti-bacterial, anti-static, fire-resistant, odor-absorbent, and water-absorbent. These cotton-polyester blended undies were designed to be worn for as long as a month at a time before having to be changed. Space programs around the world are eager to use them to reduce the amount of cargo, and therefore weight, space vehicles have to carry.
History has shown space programs to be incubators of many great inventions that have infused everyday, civilian life. From MRIs, ear thermometers, and satellite dishes, to edible toothpaste, smoke detectors, and pens that write upside down, the consequences of space programs’ work have often been wide-reaching. Perhaps the day is fast approaching when the numbers of bras and panties women own could be cut to a fraction of their current amounts. Then again, what fun would that be?CC Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/ / CC BY 2.0 CC Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc// CC BY 2.0