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An End to Stinky Space Clothes?

NASA is working on a low-tech solution to the problem of clothing its astronauts and others living aboard the International Space Station. Continue reading →

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Former station crewmember Koichi Wakata gets a workout. NASA wants those exercise clothes to last for 30 days.

Nothing says “astronaut” quite like a spacesuit. Whether it’s the shiny aluminized nylon flight suits worn by the original Mercury Seven astronauts or the pressurized bright orange “pumpkin suits” worn by space shuttle crews, the clothes do make the man or the woman. It’s much more than a look; the suits could be the only thing that separates an astronaut from life or death in case of an emergency. Here’s a look at some spacesuits in NASA’s storerooms.

With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA began working on a spacesuit that astronauts could wear for forays into deep space, beyond where the space station flies. Last month, the agency awarded an 18-month, $4.4-million contract to ILC Dover to design, manufacture and test a new type of spacesuit called the Z-2. Pictured here is a predecessor prototype, the Z-1, which resembles something Buzz Lightyear might have in his closet. The design is intended to be more comfortable and more flexible for spacewalkers than the Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMU, that spacewalkers wear today.

NASA looked to the U.S. Navy when it came time to design a spacesuit for its first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, pictured here, who were selected in 1959. The agency modified a version of high altitude jet aircraft pressure suit. Beneath the shiny layer of aluminized nylon is an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon.

It wasn’t enough to simply land on the moon. The Apollo astronauts were tasked to get out of their spaceship and walk around. Three crews even got to drive around in lunar rovers. Their spacesuits were the first to include a liquid-cooled inner garment and an outer layer to protect against micrometeoroid impacts. Pictured here is the iconic shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken by his crew mate and commander, Neil Armstrong.

NASA dropped pressurized flight suits for space shuttle crews after four test flights. When Vance Brand, Bob Overmyer, Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir blasted off aboard Columbia on Nov. 11, 1982, for the fifth shuttle mission they wore just blue flights suits with oxygen helmets.

After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA beefed-up safety requirements, which included a redesign flight suit for astronauts to wear during launch and landing. The so-called “pumpkin suits” evolved into the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, pictured here. The full-pressure suit is based on U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suits worn by SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy plane pilots. It includes a parachute pack and harness, life raft, life preserver, gloves, oxygen manifolds and valves, boots and survival gear.

To protect astronauts working outside the shuttle or the space station, NASA developed the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. It’s more like a self-contained satellite than a spacesuit, offering spacewalkers environmental protection, life support and communications. The two-piece semi-rigid suit, which weighs about 300 pounds, is one of two kinds used on the space station today. The other is one-piece semi-rigid Russian Orlan suit. Astronaut Steve Robinson, attached to the Canadarm2 during STS-114 in 2005, is pictured here.

NASA has studied dozens of spacesuit designs over the years, including the AX-5, pictured here, which was developed at the Ames Research Center in California. The high-pressure suit uses hard metal and a composite rigid exoskeleton design.

Many old spacesuits end up in museums. But this decommissioned Russian Orlan suit took on a new life as a low-cost satellite. Dubbed SuitSat, the discarded spacesuit was filled with old clothes, outfitted with a radio transmitter and released into Earth orbit on Feb. 3, 2006. It was eventually pulled back into the atmosphere by the planet’s gravity and burned up.