Dr. Brian George has led the project for over two decades.
A little bit of Jefferson is orbiting about 250 miles above the Earth right now.
Since 1978, the University has produced high-performance material used for making gloves for NASA’s astronauts as they perform spacewalks. Dr. Brian George, Jefferson’s director of engineering programs, has led the effort for over two decades.
ILC Dover contacts Dr. George to begin a new project every few years. The Delaware-based company, which has a longstanding contract with NASA, specializes in innovative design and production of engineered products with high-performance flexible materials.
The process to make anywhere from 20 to 100 yards of material from Nomex fibers takes roughly six weeks to complete, with the latest batch to wrap up in Dr. George’s Hayward Hall lab in August.
Except for some equipment upgrades, Dr. George follows essentially the same textile engineering process from 40-plus years ago. He learned the craft from textiles professor J. Robert Wagner, who developed the University’s nonwovens lab in 1977—the first textile school in the nation to have one, Dr. George says.
The fibers are opened and carded—a process that disentangles, cleans and intermixes fibers—to produce a fibrous web and then needle-punched to form a felt fabric. “It’s proven to be effective,” says Dr. George, of the tried-and-true method.
In addition to playing an important role in the success of space missions, this work benefits Jefferson students who normally assist Dr. George during each round. They learn real-world skills, such as processing and quality control.
“And they can say they’ve made something that has been to outer space,” he says.
Gaining valuable experience in material development and testing, textile engineering alumna Dr. Nicole Bieak Kreidler loved working on the project that supported astronauts and the space program.
“I learned about the technical aspects of a material that would be subject to forces beyond what we know on Earth,” says the 2002 grad, now an interior architecture professor at West Virginia University.
Dr. Brian George is crosslapping the material as it comes out of the carding machine.
Working in the lab on the material furthered Shana Kaplan’s understanding of concepts she learned in the classroom, says the 2018 engineering grad with a concentration in textile engineering.
“I got to see web forming and bonding in action, and I could ask questions that would never have occurred to me otherwise,” says Kaplan, who now specializes in purchasing and quality control at Yarrington Mills. “Even cleaning the equipment gave me an up-close look at how the machinery works and connects. Working on projects like the space gloves helped demonstrate to me the thought process behind why certain textile processes are chosen for a product with specific functions and properties.”