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Karl Aspelund, an anthropologist and assistant professor in the textiles and design department at the University of Rhode Island is leading a team of students to help reinvent clothing for astronauts in space.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Until Sandra Bullock slithered out of her space suit to reveal a tank top and short shorts in “Gravity,” fictional space travelers from “The Jetsons” to “Star Trek” had dressed pretty much alike, in form-fitting tops and pants.

But the real-life astronauts on the International Space Station float around in polo shirts and cargo pants.

Which is better? Or, is it neither? Suppose you’re going to be stuck in those clothes for a really long time, like the years it would take for a mission on Mars?

University of Rhode Island’s Karl Aspelund is on a mission to answer those questions, participating in The 100 Year Starship Initiative, which is working to achieve interstellar flight within 100 years. Since 2012, astrophysicists have been working on thorny issues like navigation and jet propulsion, but it turns out that the question, “What should I wear?” is important, too.

The answer is not about fashion but rather issues of ecology, individual identity and even the need for clothing at all, according to Aspelund, an anthropologist and assistant professor in the textiles and design department at URI.

“We have to set aside everything we know,” Aspelund said. “What we’re aiming to do is reinvent clothing.”

Aspelund began thinking about clothes for space travel while listening to a National Public Radio report on the 100 Year Starship. Initiated by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the project was intended to be completed as a grant program, and former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison’s private foundation won the bid.

“It occurred to me as a designer and an anthropologist who focuses on clothing practices that I might be able to contribute,” Aspelund thought at the time.

He emailed an inquiry, and Jemison responded with an invitation to a conference in Houston to collaborate with the scientists, astrophysicists and engineers already on board.

Since then, there have been two more conferences and a $15,000 grant from the URI Council for Research, which enabled him to hire four students for one year to help with research. They have looked as far back as the 15th century and through current space programs to see how people have outfitted themselves for exploration, but the Starship project involves one huge difference: time.

“Apollo missions didn’t need to consider long-term clothing,” Aspelund said. “Even for the Space Station, the longest duration is 400 days. But we (Starship participants) are talking about missions that are decades long, maybe lifelong,” such as establishing a base on Mars.

“Maintenance and repair are the most difficult questions,” he has discovered. Clothes get dirty, and they wear out. “How are we going to clean them and resupply them? Are we going to seed the universe with resupply ships? The fact is we don’t know how to do it," he added.

There also is the issue of numbers. “Like a cruise ship, you need a certain number of people just to run the darn thing, and a community of 2,000 is about the smallest group you can isolate without inbreeding problems,” he noted.

“We also have to deal with the ecology, so we need to find a way to make a closed-loop, self-sustaining system for at least 2,000 people” – which brings polyester into the picture.

“Polyester is 100 percent recyclable,” Aspelund pointed out. “Organic plant and animal fibers, like cotton and wool, degrade, but recycled polyester is still polyester. And it’s come a long way since the 1970s.”

Structural changes made to polyester have created the microfibers we know from earthly clothing, like soft fleece, that mimic natural materials but actually have qualities that surpass them, like the ability to wick away moisture.

He even considers the possibility that the idea of “clothes” will change.

“On a Mars base or in a space station, there is no weather, which means an enormous amount of clothing disappears,” he said.

Maybe Sandra Bullock’s tank top really is all she needs, but some other wild ideas have come up, like spray-on clothing.

But Aspelund, the anthropologist, knows there is another reason for wearing clothing: identity.

“You can’t just throw the same jumpsuit at everybody and say, ‘Here’s what you are going to wear.’ The lack of identity starts to affect you,” he said, and any country or organization that has tried it has failed.

“Soldiers and prisoners start individualizing their uniforms; the military gets around it with their insignias and patches.” Even the pajama-clad Maoist Chinese “built in a little cheat,” he noted, with hierarchical differences in their outfits.

So obvious that we don’t even think about it is the need for a distinction between clothes for work and clothes for everything else.

“I wear a suit to teach, but I’d feel silly sitting at the dinner table at home in my suit,” he said. “Even on a space station, people need clothes that say, ‘I’m off duty.’”

Cultural differences come into play as well. “The question is not just what clothes will people need, but whose clothes,” Aspelund said. “The idealism of this (Starship) endeavor makes it a multi-national operation, and I would feel terribly sad if what we’re sending beyond this planet was only a small sampling of the richness of humanity.”

Aspelund wasn’t thinking about all of humanity when he became interested in clothing as a youngster in Iceland watching his grandparents, a tailor and a seamstress, at work. After graduating from the Wimbledon College of Art in London in 1986, he worked as an artist and in theater design for 20 years, eventually moving to the United States and working as a designer in Providence. He began teaching at URI in 1996 and earned a doctorate in anthropology and material culture in 2011 from Boston University, winning the University Professors Edmonds Prize for best dissertation.

Never in all that time did he think his work would lead him to designing for space travel, but if the 100-year time frame plays out, his grandchildren will be around to see it, he noted. If not in space, building an ecologically sound way to produce and recycle clothing has down-to-earth applications as well.

“That’s how my career has been, always in places I never imagined,” Aspelund said. “It’s a very interesting place to be.”

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