"The space program has, over the years, provided a catalyst for a lot of the progress we are seeing today in textiles," said David Raitt, technology transfer and promotions officer with the European Space Agency (ESA).
Developing strong, lightweight fabrics is a vital part of the ESA's research because it costs 10,000 euros ($12,500 U.S.) for every 1 kilo (2.2 pounds) launched into space. The organization spends 400 million euros ($500 million U.S.) annually on textile innovation, and it can take years to create a fabric that meets the extreme conditions that astronauts encounter during a mission. But back on earth, consumers benefit from ESA technology as manufacturers put it to use in everyday items.
Next year, a washable suit that monitors babies' heart and respiration rates could be on the market. The design is based on astronauts' gear, and it is intended to help prevent crib deaths by alerting parents if their baby's breathing or heart pattern changes.
Italian designers Grado Zero plan to sell a protective leather motorbike jacket with ESA technology. A unique gel system in the jacket will allow the shoulders and elbows to be supple when worn, but upon impact those areas will immediately harden and cushion the wearer. The jacket, which is made of ultra-thin leather, is also specially treated to be warm in winter and cool in the summer.
Researchers have items in the works to help individuals suffering from serious illnesses as well. One company is working on a bra with built-in monitors for women with breast cancer. Another organization is developing a special suit for children with xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare genetic condition that makes the individual extraordinarily sensitive to sunlight.
These are only a few of the innovative items being produced with ESA technology. Many others are currently on display in the exhibition "Dress Codes," at the Materio library in Paris, France.