Five Questions With: Karl Aspelund

". Many of the problems created by long-term space exploration terms of the design, care, maintenance, and recycling of clothing appear as a result of the ship or base needing to be self-sustaining."

Karl Aspelund is an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design at the University of Rhode Island.

His primary interests lie in examining the role textiles and design play in the creation of identity, the impact of the textile life-cycle on the Earth’s environment, and how the design community can contribute to the goal of environmental sustainability. He is now turning toward investigating the design and cultural needs and constraints of clothing in long-term space exploration.

Aspelund was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from URI’s Council for Research to begin background research for the project, with the hope of eventually creating guidelines and prototypes.

PBN: What got you thinking about an astronaut’s wardrobe?
I come at it from two directions: Design and anthropology, both of which I have been working with as a professional, a teacher, and a researcher in past years. The problems of both intrigued me last August when I heard Dr. Mae Jemison on NPR discussing her organization the “100 Year Starship.” This is a foundation dedicated to making possible human spaceflight out of the solar system by 2112. Now, a mission of that kind would take about 40 years with current technology and I became curious as to whether anyone was looking into the considerable needs and constraints involved in clothing for a mission of that duration. I sent an email to Dr. Mae, and her response was very encouraging, inviting and helpful. Then it took off from there and here we are.

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PBN: Do you see functioning, reusable clothing as a big challenge in long space-missions?
Yes and it seems that more than anything it’s the length of the missions that produces a number of new challenges for on-board outfitting. Current missions are relatively short and the crews on the International Space Station are resupplied with clothing and other goods, so the problems involved there are all pretty familiar and manageable. Weightlessness adds some twists, and laundry is not done in space, but otherwise it’s all much of a piece with Earthly indoor practices.

However, once we start considering missions beyond the current programs, major shifts take place: First of all, the time-frame of the missions – years and decades rather than weeks and months – invites technical concerns regarding maintenance and the recycling of resources. What if something need repairing? What to do when things wear out? What if the crewmember’s bodies change their shape over the years? You could certainly pack for the entire trip, but if you’re not doing repairs or laundry on a mission that takes years or decades, that’s an awful lot of clothing to be schlepping around the solar system at very high energy costs in high-value cubic footage.
Secondly, straightforward design issues regarding functionality of the clothing and the materials become focused. To name only a few, garments may need to be radiation shields, wearable technology has to be miniaturized and incorporated, and issues of fit and range of motion become different in tight enclosed spaces as well as weightlessness. And even if the crew is put into hibernation for years, you still have to think of materials that will work with the body as it sleeps. In terms of clothing, we may be thinking of something very different than what humans have been accustomed to so far.
Finally, once you get a time-frame of months and years, you have to start thinking of psychological and social issues. Now you have a crew, possibly very large, that forms a community in a closed environment. Clothing is very important to people on a detailed, deep, and personal level, even in regimented and ordered communities. The whole thing may be militarized for all we know right now, but personal identity and comfort matter even in such communities. There are ranks and hierarchies, gender identities, “on duty” uniforms versus “off duty” clothing, and on and on. A host of everyday Earthly issues appear on the radar very quickly and the list gets very long as soon as the missions’ time frames expand.

PBN: Can you explain a little bit about your ideas?
I would like to make it easier to answer the question “What to wear on board?” for these long-range missions and so the first thing to do is to assemble in one place a good overview of what has been done so far in the space programs of the past 50-odd years as well as figure out what we might learn from other types of expeditions and earlier ages of human exploration. Then we’ll consider the designing: What to improve and what new needs and constraints are inherent in and imposed by these new human communities of starships and extraterrestrial-bases.
There is a second facet of this exploration that is equally fascinating and in many ways far more urgent. Many of the problems created by long-term space exploration terms of the design, care, maintenance, and recycling of clothing appear as a result of the ship or base needing to be self-sustaining. All materials must be recyclable and water and energy use must be very carefully managed. So the clothing itself might be just the tip of the iceberg. What I’m hoping to see is the development of processes of manufacturing, care, and maintenance of textiles and apparel that allow the starships and extraterrestrial bases to be self-sufficient in a closed-loop ecosystem.

PBN: Do you think the type of clothing to use in space could be useful here as well?
As I answered in the above question, If we can achieve a self-sufficient ecosystem for space exploration, it will provide enormous benefits on Earth, by making the industry sustainable and allowing the manufacturing of inexpensive, anti-microbial, long-lasting, recyclable fabrics to be local and on-demand. This could be of lasting benefit for developing nations as well as our large urban communities.

PBN: What will you use the $15,000 grant from the Council of Research for?
The grant is a “proposal development grant.” These grants are meant to provide the opportunity for someone with a new and viable but unfunded idea to lay the foundation for much larger and longer-term research. In my case, the funds have now allowed me to hire three graduate students as research assistants to start exploring the territory. They will be working in tandem over the next six months, investigating what’s available out there, and assembling a knowledge-base from which I intend to develop a larger cultural and technical investigation for the coming years. I would also hope that it will inspire the students to branch out into research of their own. But for now, they will investigate and gather the details of what we know so far in terms of the materials and methods used in spaceflight for the past 50 years, the ecological implications of what we are suggesting, and the cultural and historical aspects of focused and isolated long term missions and expeditions. This is the main thrust of the project’s first phase, but there will also be some traveling to gather materials through archival research and interviewing and we will need some equipment for all this recording and gathering and the creation of an on-line database. I am very hopeful, given this grant, that we will assemble an enormous amount of material to work with in coming years. I am very grateful for the support from URI. It’s very encouraging to have the project recognized and extremely helpful to be able to start the project with this backing.

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