NASA is working on a low-tech solution to the problem of clothing its astronauts and others living aboard the International Space Station.
With no washing machines and dryers aboard the outpost and limited water, astronauts simply discard their laundry and break open new packages of freshly washed clothes delivered to them in orbit via pricy freighters.
NASA is looking to trim its delivery bill, which currently runs in the neighborhood of $40,000 per pound to orbit, and is testing whether astronauts will be happy with lighter-weight fabrics. Currently, the crew’s wardrobe is made of cotton, which may not seem terribly heavy but consider this: for a crew of six, clothing accounts for more than 900 pounds of cargo per year.
Traditional cotton garments also produce lint that gets trapped in the station’s air filters, which then need to be cleaned more often, notes Evelyne Orndoff, a textiles scientist working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The agency also is looking ahead to the day when cargo deliveries will be few and far between — if they exist at all — as astronauts begin flying missions that take them much farther than the space station, which orbits about 260 miles above Earth.
As a trial run, each of the six crewmembers currently aboard the station (two Americans, three Russians and one European) has a package of test clothing awaiting them aboard the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo ship that reached the station on Wednesday.
The packs contain a mix of exercise clothes and routine daywear — T-shirts, shorts, cargo pants — made of alternative fabrics, such as polyester, wool and modacrylic.
For added life, some of the exercise shirts and all of the shorts have been treated with the antimicrobial 3-(Trimethoxsilyl)propyldimethyloctadecyl ammonium chloride, manufactured by PureShield, Inc., under the brand name Bio-Protect 500, NASA said.
Other exercise shirts are made with yarn containing an antimicrobial copper ion, a fabric treatment marketed by Cupron. All of the clothes were purchased in retail stores or online, Orndoff told Discovery News.
Crewmembers have been asked to wear and tell. Researchers want to know if the clothes are comfortable in space. Do they feel itchy? Do they like wearing them? And, perhaps most important, when do the clothes get too smelly to wear?
That last question is particularly important since current guidelines limit undergarment changes to every two days and pants and shorts to 30 days. The new fabrics might last even longer.
“We have instructed everybody to wait as long as you feel comfortable, but as soon as you feel gross or something don’t just force yourself through,” Orndoff said.
“They hopefully will know when to draw the line and not try to compete with each other,” she said.