13 April 2010
Other - Tourism (Good)
Flagsuit Makes Pret-a-Porter Space Gloves
No gloves, no space tourist love
by G.B. Leatherwood and Carol Pinchefsky
When Marianne Dyson, former NASA Mission Control specialist and author of “Space Station Science,” speaks with school children, she uses an exercise to demonstrate the difficulty of working in space. She has them try to pick a dime off a table top...while wearing boxing gloves.

(Try it yourself. If you don't have a pair of boxing gloves handy, just use a pair of ordinary garden gloves and the difficulty will become instantly obvious.)

Now imagine you're outside the ISS replacing a piece of equipment. You need to unscrew multiple screws and bolts, prevent them from flying off (obviously you can’t hike to the nearest hardware store for more parts), replace your part, and screw the cover plate back on. All with the equivalent of boxing gloves on your hands.

In the early days of space exploration, each suit was individually tailored to the specific astronaut, a time-consuming and expensive task. As more and more people lifted off the earth, the suits became more standardized—similar to the small, medium, and large sizes of t-shirt manufacturing—needing only minor tweaking to fit each astronaut.

Except for gloves.

Knees, elbows, shoulders, hips, even feet fall within a relatively narrow set of specifications. Large joints only bend so many ways for a certain distance. But hands and fingers? In order to keep our ability to grasp, rotate, and manipulate objects in space, astronauts need a pair of gloves that fit each hand…like a glove.

Peter K. Homer, CEO of Flagsuit LLC, may have the gloves that make the most of our evolutionary advantage, the hand, while in space.

Homer, who won the 2007 NASA Astronaut Space Suit Glove Challenge, relayed that when NASA builds gloves, it constructs multiple layers, including a gas-tight membrane. If the initial glove doesn’t fit, technicians make miniscule adjustments based on the astronaut’s feedback, and then gloves then get retested. It can take three or four iterations of that process to fit one pair of gloves. Astronauts need three pairs: one for training, one for flight, and one as a spare.

However, what Homer does is take measurements and runs it into his computer program. The problem adjusts the patterns so the gloves fit right the first time.

But the fitting is not the only thing to make Homer’s gloves unique. His glove only has three layers: the outer tough layer, the gas-tight membrane, and the inner layer for comfort. Also, “The special sauce that’s in my gloves is the finger joint… a hinge-like joint created with fabric and some reinforcement strips.”

If for some reason the gloves don’t fit, he throws the first pair away, retakes measurements, and constructs another glove. He’s saving money because the initial construction is simpler.

So Homer’s gloves save time and money. It’s probably for those reasons that Flagsuit shipped their first commercially produced spacesuit gloves to Los Angeles-based Orbital Outfitters, to be used with the Industrial Suborbital Space Suit-Crew (IS3C).

Homer estimates that the gloves now produced by NASA cost about $40,000 for the initial unit, then up to another $100,000 for final individual fitting. He says his gloves “cost less than a tenth of that.” He concedes that his gloves aren’t certified for space at this time. “I’m looking at the cost to produce a pair of gloves, not including that certification expense.”

But what about the implications for the future, especially for space tourism?

Homer said, “Even though few, if any tourists will be going ‘EVA’ [extra vehicular activity], spacesuits will still be required for tourist flights for a long time to come. Commercial space tourism is predicted to be a multi-billion dollar industry with flights weekly or even daily. With the rapid design and fitting of gloves such as the Flagsuit product, the implications are significant and promising.” The same process can be applied to the entire spacesuit.

For complete information about the first commercial space suit gloves, visit the Flagsuit website.
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G B Leatherwood 13 April 2010
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