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Designing for Deep Space

Designing for Deep Space

RISD's artists and designers are attempting to answer a question that's had NASA engineers scratching their heads for decades: how do you make a glove tough enough to withstand the moon's harsh atmosphere while allowing the hand to move freely? In the Wintersession course Designing Space Gloves for NASA – a studio offered by RISD's Apparel and Industrial Design departments – students are pairing up to create functional prototypes that can weather the unearthly elements of deep space.

The sheer physics of the challenge requires exceptionally creative approaches to glove design, says Senior Critic Michael Lye 96 ID, who has facilitated a partnership between RISD and NASA's Habitability Design Center since 2004. Before astronauts can leave the oxygenated confines of the space station, they need to put on protective suits that exert more than four pounds of pressure on the body. “It's not the most comfortable thing to wear, but it keeps them alive,” notes Lye.

Because the suit's multilayered gloves swell up like balloons, space travelers find it especially challenging to bend their fingers or make a fist. This complication makes it nearly impossible to complete tasks requiring precision – like picking up screws or inputting information into computers. Astronauts are “constantly fighting the gloves,” Lye explains. “When the muscles are strained, that's when injuries occur. That's not a good thing to happen in space.”

Poor glove design also leads to physical ailments that would make even the hardiest earth-bound athlete cringe. “When [astronauts] return, their fingernails are gone,” Lye notes. “The gloves don't provide enough circulation.”

Though NASA has worked hard to improve the dexterity of the glove, it's been at least 40 years since any significant changes were made to the underlying design. “That's where RISD comes in,” Lye says. “As designers we approach problems differently and often come up with surprising solutions that would otherwise be difficult for NASA to achieve on its own.”

Ryan Mather 15 ID was initially drawn to the class due to his interest in materials. “I wanted to know more about fabrics,” he says. “NASA builds gloves that could survive an asteroid shower.”

But the industrial designer was surprised to find value in learning about apparel design, too. After receiving a lesson in pattern design from Associate Professor and Department Head Catherine Andreozzi 87 AP, who is teaching the course with Lye, Mather is making his prototype glove using layers of ripstop nylon. “It's amazing to learn how to turn two-dimensional patterns into three-dimensional form,” he says. “It's given me the chance to visualize things in a whole new way.”

To test out their creations, students are using a machine-powered vacuum chamber that mimics the conditions of deep space. “See how hard it is to make a fist?” Lye asks over the roar of the machine as students put their hands into the chamber's transparent bubble.

Ever so gingerly, Mather inserts his gloved hand into the vacuum chamber. After waiting a few seconds, he feels a whoosh of air as one of the seams gives out from the pressure. “You never know how the prototypes are going to react until you test them out,” he says with a worried look, adding that he obviously needs to reinforce the stitching.

Thanks to her background in tailoring, Eugene Liu 16 AP has already fashioned a series of sophisticated prototypes using self-designed digital print fabrics. Now in the process of completing a clothing collection, the apparel major originally signed up for the class to master the art of glove construction. “I think elbow-length gloves are elegant. I want to include them in my looks,” she explains.

However, she didn't anticipate that she would have to study the anatomy of the hand as part of the process. But after Liu came to understand the form of the fingers when at rest, she was able to make a snuggly-fit glove with ease. “At first, it was so hard. The muscles [of the hand] are so complicated,” she notes. “Now, I'll be one of the few designers who can make the gloves modeled on the runway.”

For her design, Maeve Jopsen 13 ID looked to one of nature's most resilient ocean creatures: the lobster. She fashioned a claw-like glove that gives the hand more power by clumping the fingers together instead of sheathing each digit separately. “It looks funny,” she admits. “But there are a lot of mechanical advantages to this design.”

Mimicking one of NASA's tricks, Jopsen also inserted a bar into the interior of the glove. The added reinforcement makes it easier for the hand to grasp objects while in space. “It's so hard for the fingers to bend without these devices,” she says.

Jopsen's glove design is still in the experimental stages. However, she feels like no matter where her creation goes, she's already over the moon. “Who wouldn't want to design for NASA?” –Abigail Crocker

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