Out of This World: For 40 Years, PhilaU Has Helped Produce Space Gloves for Astronauts

Brian George, associate professor of engineering, works on the space glove material in the lab. The process has remained virtually unchanged over the past 40 years.

Brian George, associate professor of engineering, works on the high-performance space glove material.

A little bit of Philadelphia University is orbiting about 250 miles above the Earth right now. Since the 1970s, the University has produced high-performance material that goes into making gloves for NASA’s astronauts as they perform space walks, and for a large chunk of that time, Brian George, PhilaU associate professor of engineering, has led the effort.

ILC Dover contacts George to begin a new job 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 just wrapping up in George’s Hayward lab earlier this month.

Except for some equipment upgrades, the PhilaU team follows essentially the same textile engineering process from 40 years ago, said George, who learned the craft from J. Robert Wagner, professor emeritus of textiles. The fibers are opened and carded to produce a fibrous web, which is then needle-punched to form a felt fabric. “It’s proven to be effective,” he said.

In addition to playing an important role in the success of space missions, this work benefits PhilaU students who assist George during each round. They learn real-world skills, such as processing and quality control.

The process to make anywhere from 20 to 100 yards of material from Nomex fibers takes roughly six weeks to complete.

The process to make anywhere from 20 to 100 yards of material from Nomex fibers takes roughly six weeks to complete.

“And they can say they have made something that has been to outer space,” he said.

Shana Kaplan, a junior engineering student with a textile engineering concentration, said working in the lab on the material furthers her understanding of the concepts she learns in class.

“I get to see web forming and bonding in action, and I can ask questions that would never have occurred to me otherwise,” she said. “Even cleaning the equipment has given me an up-close look at how the machinery works and connects together. Working on projects like the spacesuit felt have helped demonstrate the thought process behind why certain textile processes are chosen for a product with specific functions and properties.”

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