The fabric frontier

One small step for textiles, one giant leap for the textile industry. Textiles that have impacted the space program have also impacted the industry as a whole.

Figure 19

Originally developed to protect NASA astronauts, Fiberglas® fabric coated with Teflon®, known as Beta Cloth, is now regularly used for architectural tensile structures. In 1970, DuPont® and Owens-Corning were putting the final touches on Beta Cloth. Developed for use in spacesuits, it was engineered to withstand temperatures up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, while providing more tensile strength than steel. Shortly after the fabric was developed, the two companies worked with Birdair Inc. to modify the material for architectural use.

Figure 20

Widely used these days for almost all fabric-related applications, including industrial applications, Velcro™, invented in the 1940s, didn’t become well-known until more than a decade later when NASA started using it in the 1960s to anchor equipment for astronauts’ convenience in Apollo mission zero-gravity situations.

Figure 21

Fireproofing of canvas duck was critical to the success of Admiral Richard Byrd’s Antarctic expedition in 1929. Because of the extreme cold at the South Pole, the motors of the airplanes could not be started until they had been warmed to liquefy the congealed oil. Fireproof and waterproof covers were used that had been treated by Price Fire & Waterproofing Co., New York, N.Y., and furnished by Baker, Carver & Morell Inc., also of New York, N.Y.

Figure 22

The industrial fabric industry provided the establishment of the U.S. space program with dramatic new sets of uses for manufactured fibers. When Neil Armstrong took “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on the moon July 20, 1969, his lunar space suit included multi-layers of nylon and aramid fabrics. The flag he planted was made of nylon. Today, the exhaust nozzles of the two large booster rockets that lift space shuttles into orbit contain 30,000 pounds of carbonized rayon, and carbon fiber composites are used in structural components in commercial aircraft, adding strength and lowering weight and fuel costs.

Figure 23

“We’re an old-economy type industry, a cut-and-sew industry, but we sell to the very high-tech customers,” says Robert Rosania, IFM, CPP, and CEO of Ehmke Manufacturing Co. Inc. The Philadelphia, Pa.-based company fabricates acoustical and thermal blankets for aircraft, foreign object debris (FOD) covers and other custom projects. In 2011, Ehmke provided custom design and engineering for the interiors of the U.S. Marine Corps HMX-1 squadron (the squadron responsible for the transportation of the president of the United States and other VIPs) and reset the interiors of the helicopter and fixed wing fleet of the U.S. Department of State.

Jessica Bies is a freelance writer based in St. Peter, Minn.
Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.