To Infinity and Beyond

Karl Aspelund imagines the clothing required for interstellar space travel


As we think about space as the final frontier, we must also think about the clothing our future selves will be wearing as we continue to explore the stars. This is what Karl Aspelund spends his time doing. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, and is in the second year of a research project that focuses on the needs and constraints of intravehicular (on-board) clothing for long duration space expeditions. “This came out of my association with the 100 Year Starship organization,” he says “that aims to assemble all necessary knowledge to enable human space flight beyond our solar system by 2112.” As an anthropologist and a designer, his research interests are directed toward how apparel and design play a vital role in the creation of personal, ethnic and national identity.

“Before I went into anthropology, I was a designer, so I can bring the focus of both disciplines to the project,” he says. “For the past year or so, we’ve begun to look into issues relating to human exploration and clothing, by gathering everything we could on practices, design and technology related to the space program, but also how humans have dealt with clothing on long dura-tion expeditions and isolated habitats throughout history.”

Karl has taken everything he knows about the last 40,000 years of human dress culture, thrown it into the air and imagined how it applies to long-duration space travel. He has to consider how zero gravity and cosmic radiation will affect travelers once they leave Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. “Any materials used may need to inco

rporate some element of radiation shielding, requiring a whole new set of fabrics,” he explains. Because his research concerns missions that will takes years or even lifetimes, he is assuming that all materials will have to be part of a closed loop system, where everything is reusable within a ship’s environment. Real life examples of these closed loop systems currently occur on the International Space Station, submarines and Antarctic expeditions.

Karl is continually fascinated by his research. “Apparel and textiles touch on nearly every facet of human life and experience. The way we dress ourselves and the reasons we do so are deeply integrated with our identities as individuals, groups, cultures and even – in a certain light – as a species,” he explains. “The simple question ‘What shall we wear?’ when brought into space-based communities and long duration space exploration uncovers a nearly boundless area of inquiry relating to human identity, gender, physical vulnerability and number of psychological, cultural and sociological issues.”

So, as you can see, the question of “what does one wear in space?” is not as easily answered as you may have imagined. Karl has to think outside of the box and draw from his years of experience to even begin to answer this question. According to him, “to be human is to have a creative spirit; to be a human being is to have that drive to imagine, to build, to wonder and to experience the world in a way that almost allows you to be slightly awed by it. Human beings imagine ourselves into existence. We imagine what we are and then we become it.” Well, with the amount of brain power emanating from Karl Aspelund’s brain, I’m sure our travels into space will be comfortable, fashionable and more than anything we could have imagined.

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