This 37-year-old NASA engineer is designing a spacesuit for women on the side: ‘It’s not just cool, it’s necessary’
Growing up, Sabrina Thompson dreamed of becoming an artist or fashion designer — she just never imagined she would be designing clothes for space.
Thompson, 37, is an aerospace engineer for NASA as well as the CEO and founder of the streetwear brand Girl in Space Club. For the better part of this year, Thompson has been designing and researching how to develop a stylish, pressurized suit for female astronauts.
The suit is designed to be worn inside of a launch vehicle or carrier rocket en route to space and during re-entry.
Below, Thompson discusses the inspiration behind the spacesuit's design and the impact she's hoping it will have on the space industry:
A marriage of art and science
As a kid, all Thompson wanted to do was "make art, play basketball and play with my Barbies," she recalls. It wasn't until her senior year of high school, when it was time to decide on college, that she learned what an engineer was.
Her high school art teacher helped her choose a major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "I was valedictorian of my class, yet everyone knew where they wanted to go to college except for me," she says. "My art teacher was the one who helped me out and suggested, 'Why don't you try engineering?'"
Thompson soon discovered that a career in mechanical engineering would be the perfect union between her love of art and her mathematical prowess. After graduating from Stony Brook with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Thompson went on to earn a master's in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech.
She joined NASA in 2010 and has been working with the organization for the past 12 years designing orbit trajectories for space missions.
But she never abandoned art: Thompson's apartment in Baltimore is littered with paintings, custom sneakers and other designs. In 2018, she started Girl in Space Club with the goal of making STEM "fun and fashionable" for future generations.
"I had a great job that was satisfying my curiosity about how things worked, it allowed me to grow in technical areas," she once told WWD. "But that artist inside of me was internally starving."
'Spacesuits have never been designed with women in mind'
Girl in Space Club also has a mentorship arm, aimed at getting more girls interested in STEM education through fashion — designing the space suit for women will be its largest project to date. "The fashion piece is very important to draw more girls into STEM and to space, especially more girls of color," she tells CNBC Make It. "It's not just cool, it's necessary."
Women are still wildly underrepresented in STEM fields, including the aerospace industry: the number of women working in the international space field has fluctuated at around 20% for at least 30 years, and only 11% of astronauts so far have been women, according to the United Nations.
"Spacesuits have never been designed with women in mind," Thompson points out, despite the fact that women have been instrumental in designing space suits for astronauts.
In fact, the women's' undergarment maker, Playtex, also known as the International Latex Corporation (ILC) is the company that made the original Apollo spacesuits, according to Smithsonian Magazine. "Each Apollo spacesuit was constructed by hand with sewing machines, single needles, glue and heat-sealing tools," according to historian Douglas Lantry. "And women built them all."
Thompson's not the only one to take on a redesign of the traditional spacesuit in recent years. A number of private companies including SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have unveiled their own versions of in-vehicle spacesuits, which Thompson says are "very masculine" and "lack color." With her design, she hopes to make spacesuits "more fun to look at."
What comes next
There are the practical elements to consider in designing a woman's space travel suit, too. "We need to make the bust bigger, the shoulders less broad, and expand the hips," Thompson explains.
Her spacesuit design is still in its infancy, but to bring the project to life, Thompson has organized a committee of aeronautic and fashion experts including former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Patricia Stoll, the president of ILC Dover's space system's division, to help create the suit.
Thompson says she isn't sure yet how much the space suit will cost, but is speaking with potential investors and applying for grants to raise funds for the project. She also hopes to raise $75,000 from a Kickstarter campaign that launched in October, which would cover the research and development plus the prototype portion of the project.
Right now, Thompson and her team are investigating what technologies they can use to design their own pressurized space suit, and researching how to create designs that can work with different launch vehicles.
"For instance, if you're taking a ride with SpaceX and you're wearing their suit, there are integrated systems embedded in the suit that function with the actual launch vehicle." she explains. "So designing a spacesuit for a particular mission or a particular launch vehicle are things we're taking into account."
Thompson and her team are also looking into a universal suit design that would work for different missions or aerospace companies. Once a prototype is ready, it will have to undergo rigorous testing — but the research and development part of the process will take at least another couple of months.
While Thompson has applied twice to go to space with NASA, she has yet to go on a mission, she told WWD. "They say it takes two or three tries before you get selected," Thompson said, adding that she plans to try again in 2024.
In the meantime, Thompson is focused on finishing the suit design and making space exploration inclusive — and fashionable — for all. "My idea is, let's stop trying to get a seat at the table," she says. "How about we get our own table and just sit at it?"
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