NASA Spinoff

Fabrics Protect Sensitive Skin from UV Rays

In subsequent versions of the suit, the team replaced the water tubing with simple pockets that held refrigerated gel packs. These gel packs were not as effective at keeping patients cool, but they were far less costly and less cumbersome than the tubing, which had required a motorized pump attached to a belt. The gel packs also allowed young patients more freedom of movement than the tubing, adding a level of independence to their new outdoor activities.

NASA helped SPF further enhance the suits’ safety by using lapped seams with non-overlying stitch lines, which prevent light from entering through seams. According to Del Rosso, this lap stitching is used in some NASA pressure garments to prevent stitch holes from compromising suits’ protective qualities.

After deciding on the fabric blend and overall suit design, the Johnson team collaborated with SPF and the Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia (HED) Foundation (later called the Sarah Moody Foundation), in Hampton, Virginia, to provide over 1,000 suits to patients with severe light sensitivities and heat disorders. These disorders include the namesake HED, a lack of sweat glands that can lead to severe and sometimes fatal heat exhaustion; Xeroderma Pigmentosum, in which the DNA cannot repair ordinary skin damage caused by sun exposure; and polymorphic light reaction syndrome (PLRS), severe skin blistering caused by exposure to ordinary sunlight. Patients with neurological pain caused by neuropathy and multiple sclerosis also benefit from the cooling effects of the suits.

In the fall of 1997, Breese, Del Rosso, Dotts, and Johnston accompanied PLRS patients Ryan and Kyle Richards as the boys experienced their first time in the Florida sun, on a family trip to Walt Disney World that would not have been possible without the cool suits. Calling the trip one of the highlights of his life, Breese is proud of having worked with NASA to design the UV-blocking fabric and looks forward to future collaboration. “If it weren’t for NASA’s development of their space suits with the cooling vest technology,” Breese says, “none of this project could have happened.”

Product Outcome

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In 2009, SPF’s 20th year in business, ordinary beachgoers are now benefiting from the NASA and SPF partnership. The UV-blocking fabric, first used to help protect the most sensitive patients from damaging sun and heat, is now being used in swimwear and clothing for the public.

SPF categorizes its UV-blocking fabrics into two main categories: Solarweave and Solarknit, which include lines of woven or knit fabrics, respectively. The NASA fabric is incorporated into the Solarknit products, which have more stretch while still providing UV protection. The NASA collaboration, Breese says, allowed them to create a comfortable fabric that has the benefits of both the UV-blocking ability of a knit and the breathability and elasticity of a weave.

Breese reports that customers feel cooler in the SPF clothing, which he attributes to its NASA-tested fabric. “The type of fibers we use, along with highly controlled knitting and weaving techniques, create a denser shade under the fabric that enhances the cooling effect,” he says.

SPF’s newest sun-protective fabric, Aquaweave, uses the NASA-derived Solarprotiferous technology to provide better skin protection at the beach or pool than ordinary swimwear. In order to produce the UV-protective swimsuits, SPF added chlorine resistance and more elasticity to the original NASA-derived UV-blocking fabric. The apparel blocks at least 98 percent of UV rays, a feature that lasts for at least 40 machine washings. In addition to swimwear, SPF also offers a full line of machine-washable sun-protective clothing, which uses the NASA fabric. “Our partnership with NASA has helped us develop all levels of sun-protective apparel,” Breese says. Whether the fabric is worn by sun-sensitive patients, or just by sunbathers, the technology from NASA’s original space suits is now protecting more than just astronauts.

Solarweave®, Solarknit®, Aquaweave®, and SPF® are registered trademarks of Solar Protective Factory Inc.
Walt Disney World® is a registered trademark of The Walt Disney Company.