This NASA engineer is designing a spacesuit for women on the side
Growing up, Sabrina Thompson dreamed of becoming an artist or a fashion designer – she simply never imagined she would create clothes for space.
Thompson, 37, is an aerospace engineer for NASA as well as CEO and founder of streetwear brand Girl in Space Club. For most of this year, Thompson has been designing and researching how to develop a sleek, pressurized suit for female astronauts.
The suit is designed to be worn inside a launch vehicle or carrier rocket en route to space and during re-entry.
Below, Thompson discusses the inspiration behind the spacesuit design and the impact she hopes it will have on the space industry:
As a child, all Thompson wanted to do was “make art, play basketball, and play with my Barbies,” she recalls. It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, when it was time to decide on college, that she learned what an engineer was.
Her high school art teacher helped her choose a major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “I was valedictorian, but everyone knew where they wanted to go to college except me,” she says. “It was my art teacher who helped me and suggested, ‘Why don’t you try engineering?'”
Thompson soon discovered that a career in mechanical engineering would be the perfect union between his love of art and his mathematical prowess. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stony Brook, Thompson went on to earn a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech.
She joined NASA in 2010 and has worked with the organization for 12 years designing orbital trajectories for space missions.
But she never gave up on art: Thompson’s Baltimore apartment is littered with paintings, custom sneakers and other designs. In 2018, she launched Girl in Space Club with the goal of making STEM “fun and fashionable” for future generations.
“I had a great job that satisfied my curiosity about how things worked, it allowed me to grow in technical areas,” she once said. WWD. “But this artist inside of me was starving inside.”
Girl in Space Club also has a mentorship arm, aiming to get more girls interested in STEM education through fashion – designing the spacesuit for women will be her biggest project yet. “The fashion piece is very important to get more girls into STEM and into space, especially more girls of color,” she said. CNBC do it. “It’s not just cool, it’s necessary.”
Women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM fields, including the aerospace industry: the number of women working in the international space field has fluctuated around 20% for at least 30 years, and so far only 11 % of astronauts were women, according to the United Nations.
“Spacesuits were never designed with women in mind,” Thompson points out, despite the fact that women have been instrumental in designing spacesuits for astronauts.
In fact, women’s underwear maker Playtex, also known as the International Latex Corporation (ILC), is the company that made the original Apollo spacesuits, according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Each Apollo spacesuit was built by hand using sewing machines, simple needles, glue and heat-sealing tools,” according to historian Douglas Lantry. “And women built them all.”
Thompson isn’t alone in undertaking an overhaul of the traditional spacesuit in recent years. A number of private companies, including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, have unveiled their own versions of onboard spacesuits, which Thompson says are “very masculine” and “lack color.” With her design, she hopes to make spacesuits “more fun to watch.”
There are also the practical things to consider when designing a space travel suit for women. “We need to enlarge the bust, narrow the shoulder width and widen the hips,” says Thompson.
Her spacesuit design is still in its infancy, but to bring the project to life, Thompson organized a panel of aeronautics and fashion experts, including former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Patricia Stoll, president of the space system division of ILC Dover, to help create the costume.
Thompson says she doesn’t yet know how much the spacesuit will cost, but is talking with potential investors and applying for grants to raise money for the project. She also hopes to raise $75,000 through a Kickstarter campaign launched in October, which would cover research and development as well as the prototype part of the project.
Currently, Thompson and his team are investigating technologies they can use to design their own pressurized space suit and are researching how to create designs that can work with different launch vehicles.
“For example, if you’re doing a ride with SpaceX and you’re wearing their suit, there are built-in systems built into the suit that work with the actual launcher.” she explains. “So the design of a spacesuit for a particular mission or a particular launch vehicle are things that we take into account.”
Thompson and his team are also investigating a universal suit design that would work for different aerospace missions or companies. Once a prototype is ready, it will need to undergo rigorous testing, but the research and development part of the process will still take at least two months.
Although Thompson has twice applied to go to space with NASA, she has yet to fly a mission, she told WWD. “They say it takes two or three tries before you get selected,” Thompson said, adding that she plans to try again in 2024.
In the meantime, Thompson is focused on finishing the suit design and making space exploration inclusive — and fashionable — for everyone. “My idea is to stop trying to get a seat at the table,” she says. “What if we had our own table and just sat on it?”
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