Making Space (Travel) For Women
When Sabrina Thompson isn't working her day job at NASA, she's designing for a more inclusive world.
It's been too long since I last updated, and for that, I'm truly sorry. It seems I've finally put the "slow" into Slow Ghost. But rather than bore you with why it's difficult to fuse a full-time job with creative pursuits, I'll introduce someone who's excelled in his arena. Sabrina Thompson is a 37-year-old aero-engineer who has spent the last 12 years at NASA focused on crafting orbit trajectories for space missions. In her "spare" time, Thompson is a fashion designer who mentors young girls in STEM through her Girl in Space Club. Recently, she launched a Kickstarter to bring to life the first women's space travel suit. (Full disclosure, I am Kickstarter's Design & Tech Editor and Sabrina's biggest fan.)
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Thompson has taken on this project because—despite NASA's "60 years and 600 humans in space"—there are currently no space travel suits specifically tailored to women's bodies. So much so that in 2019, the agency even had to cancel the first all-female spacewalk citing a lack of apparel. Now, along with an advisory council of female astronauts, engineers, and aviation specialists, she hopes to make history — and a damn good suit.
“We only get one shot at this thing. Failure is not an option”
Slow Ghost: what do you do at NASA and how did you get your start?
Sabrina Thompson: officially, I'm an aerospace engineer. But I am considered a flight dynamicist. I design orbits and trajectories for space missions. How did I become a flight dynamicist? Basically, I stumbled upon this career, no lie. When I was a kid, I was playing basketball, making art. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, and my art teacher suggested, "Well, you're good at math and sciences. Why don't you try engineering?" So I asked my physics teacher what he thought. He told me, "You should stick with art." But I was the type of kid who, if someone told me I couldn't do something, then that was what I would do. Now, I have a Bachelor's in Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and a Master's in Aerospace Engineering.
You started working on the suit while taking evening sewing classes at fashion education incubator Sew Bromo.
Yes. Right before the pandemic, I took a class at Sew Bromo with Nicole Myrick, owner of Belvedere Terrace Atelier. Toward the end of the pandemic, I was burnt out balancing school and work and took five months off to collect myself. I went to Amsterdam to meet other creators and get inspired. I sent an email to Nicole and said, "Hey, when I come back, I need to get a flight suit made." I drew up pictures, and Nicole said she could have it done in just a few months, and that was the end of it.
Why a flight suit for women?
At first, it was a joke. Stacey Stube of Sew Bromo and I were chatting about projects, and she said, "wouldn't it be cool if you made a space suit?" I thought, "well, in 2019, a spacewalk was actually canceled because they didn't have enough suits to fit the two women who were supposed to do the spacewalk." So we began researching and saw that space suits were never designed for women. Yet, there was so much history about the space program as it related to women. Women who were testing and training to be astronauts but never got the chance.
It feels like a hidden history.
As I dived deeper, it became clear that this was an area nobody touched — I was told, "No, we design space suits for humans." But female astronauts I worked with struggled even to use the bathroom in these suits. I saw where Girl In Space Club could come in. More women are going to space. NASA has opened the gates for private industry to populate space. Private astronauts have been to the International Space Station. Companies are popping up that will send their astronauts to space for leisure, research, and all types of things. It's important that right now, we start being inclusive of women. And that starts by outfitting them in something comfortable.
What is the difference between the iconic “white suit” and a flight suit?
Suits are designed based on missions. The big white "MTV suit" worn by astronauts is called the extravehicular activity suit (EVA). In an EVA, astronauts do activities outside a launch vehicle or spacecraft. Meanwhile, the environment inside of a launch vehicle can mimic that of Earth's atmosphere, meaning you have enough oxygen to breathe properly. When you're inside a launch vehicle, you wear launch and entry suits, also called crew survival suits or intravehicular activity suits (IVA). For the most part, like with a flight with Blue Origin, where you're not orbiting, just spending a couple of minutes in space and coming back down, you need to make sure that if there is a loss in cabin pressure, you have an oxygen mask. But when you're orbiting Earth, you have to wear the IVA suit to create a bubble. Think of it as the astronaut's personal spacecraft. If there's a loss in cabin pressure, you are in a bubble. That's the type of suit we are trying to design.
Growing up, how did you imagine your adult life?
When I was a kid, I thought I would play in the NBA, even before the WNBA was a big thing, and be a famous basketball player. Or a famous artist.
Where would you like to see your life in 5 to 10 years?
To me, my time is precious. This is why I'm doing what I'm doing with Girl In Space Club. What I see for myself is freedom, and that freedom is to pursue the things in life that I'm passionate about. That drives me. Being able to wake up in the morning, go for a walk, be inspired by nature, and get lost in time. Be able to have an artsy laboratory where I could tinker with fashion and engineering while mentoring kids to innovate. To have that freedom to empower the next generation to become tomorrow's innovators that's important to me.
How do you have time for all your creative pursuits?
I was pursuing a Ph.D. and had passed the qualifying exam. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done academically. At the same time, I was working a nine-to-five. It burnt me out and taught me what life would be like if I only pursued the technical side. Now, I'm more mindful. I give NASA their time, but don't give more than I feel is "too much." For me, art and talking with kids, inspiring them, gives me energy. I love my job, but it's work. I need my NASA work to satisfy my curiosity. But I know when to turn it off and say, "Sabrina, do not go all night to solve the problem." Because you're taking away from the things that build you up and build up others. Now I sleep more. It's just a matter of being mindful. If I have to leave work for tomorrow, that's okay. I'm not a doctor; nobody's going to die. Or, hopefully, they don't!
via Stem to the Sky
When most people think of working at NASA, they imagine manning controls all night and screaming and there's coffee being thrown at the wall. It's nice to know there’s work/life balance.
It depends on what you're working on. There are times when you are in mission control and have to be there till two in the morning. I had moments like that. But at this stage in the game, I've been working there for 12 years, and one of the things that I love about the job is that there is flexibility. And most people who work for NASA want to be there. They enjoy the work. So we will put in extra hours. But, most of the time, you have to tell people not to— "don't overwork yourself." Because we're working on innovative things that have never been done before.
Your Kickstarter is just the first of multiple phases that you're working on.
Yes. In the first phase, the goal is to design and build the prototype. We have already started the research. I work with two high school students who are helping with research. I've been in conversation with those who wear, design, and test these suits. I'm hoping that during this first phase, we can build a real space suit and meet with companies to make future suits.
At the same time, on the fashion side, it's figuring out what type of materials would be useful. How do you combine functionality with style? Because who cares if the suit looks good if you can't go to space with it. It's a delicate balance.
What is phase two?
Phase two will be when we test and verify all the different subsystems. We want to make sure the suit fits people of different heights and widths. That is the area of innovation I'm excited about. To test and see, "okay, it fits this body. It fits that body." Hopefully, we raise enough that we'll be able to do microgravity testing in phase two. Then, of course, we have to check for pressure leaks and do a fit test, a mobility test. After that, we might go into the Vomit Comet. But it's mainly testing and verifying, making sure that the suit is safe and functional.
What made you decide to go with Kickstarter vs grants or traditional institutions?
I wanted to share a campaign with the public so that the average person could feel they were a part of something huge. Because we see this as being a huge initiative, and we can't do it by ourselves. We want the world to know what we're doing at Girls In Space Club. Not just innovating, but doing good in the world. And I think, in general, most people want to contribute to something good. This campaign will show us what people care about and if enough people care about space being inclusive to women. I think it's the beginning. I'm trying not to tear up just a little bit, but I think this is the beginning of something really special. And I think this next generation will appreciate efforts like this.
I just want to say that the way I look at life is, as far as I know, we only get one shot at this thing. And for me, I found my purpose in using my art and my intellect to empower and educate the youth. So for me, Girl In Space Club is more than just a business, it's a passion. I'm dedicating my life to this like I would dedicate my life to my own child if I had one, because it's that important to me. And so failure is not an option.
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