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Upward and Onward

Five College of Design students can lay claim to something typically reserved for astronauts—they’ve floated freely, miles above earth.

July 16, 2014

It was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Five recent graduates of the U of M College of Design can now lay claim to something typically reserved for astronauts—they’ve floated freely, in zero gravity, miles above the earth.

A year ago, none of them could have imagined the scenario that took them from the classroom to a NASA-led flight to test potential new spacesuit materials that they themselves had designed. 

On the cutting edge
The field of wearable technology is quickly expanding, ushering in a future of responsive, active clothing. Through its Wearable Technology Lab, led by visionary College of Design professor Lucy Dunne, the U has become a leader in the field.

“Dr. Dunne and the wearable technology lab on campus are really at the cutting edge of wearable tech research … the value of having those resources and those researchers on campus, in the same building I’m studying in … that osmosis of knowledge is hugely beneficial,” says Karen Fiegen.

Fiegen, along with Kira Erickson, Jordyn Reich, Crystal Compton, and Mary Ellen Berglund, is a member of the first nonengineering all-female team to participate in NASA’s “Microgravity U,” which took place in early June.

As juniors, each took a course taught by Dunne that partnered with NASA to create functional and wearable technology design solutions for problems NASA engineers face. The students tackled the very real problem of moisture transport, says Fiegen.

“When astronauts are in a spacesuit their whole body is cooled using a special liquid-cooling garment,” says Fiegen. “But that doesn’t extend over the hands because it’s too bulky. So their hands get really sweaty, and the sweat just builds up because there’s no place for it to go. You get a problem called fingernail delamination—your fingernails fall off.”

The students designed different materials that would transport moisture away from the hands.

They’ll deliver results officially to NASA at the end of the summer, but preliminary data, says Fiegen, shows potential for a quilted, superabsorbent sodium polyacrylate cloth the students designed.

Still, ask any of them what the best part was and they can’t help but smile. Being weightless, it seems, is heavy stuff.

“It was incredible. It was really indescribable. I did tumbles in the air,” says Erickson. “I rolled up into a ball, and NASA crew members literally just spun me in the air.”

Indeed, 30 times, for 30 seconds each, the plane ascended and descended at a speed and angle that caused its passengers to become weightless. For some of that time, they tested materials, and for some of it, they had a little fun.

“It’s not like riding a rollercoaster, where you’re being thrown back and forth,” says Fiegen. “It’s just … All of a sudden you’re weightless. Your organs rise up inside of you, your fingers start to float, and your hair is floating away from your head … and everyone just kind of laughs, and their eyes get big.”  

Having returned, four of the five are now off to grad school to continue their studies in apparel design—and who wouldn’t, when your research takes you out of this world.

For Fiegan, it’s a lesson she won’t soon forget.

“The moral of our story is that … you can pretty much do whatever. If you try and are willing to put in some work and are willing to explore opportunities, you can achieve it. This is outside anything we thought we’d be doing when we came to college, and it has been the coolest part. Who knew?”

At top: 
Left to right: Karen Fiegen, Kira Erickson, Mary Ellen Berglund, Jordyn Reich, and Crystal Compton.

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