Stink-Free Underwear: Another Space Research Spin-Off

from Michael Khan, 13. July 2009, 19:22

This News isn't very recent, but I want to bring it up here because I think the implications are interesting. Bear with me. 

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So what's all this about? The Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, veteran of two previous Shuttle flights and member of the long-term ISS crew since March 2009, subjected some high-tech underwear to prolonged and intensive field testing. This underwear is special in that a special material is woven into the tissue that inhibits the bacterial decomposition of sweat and thus, to put it bluntly, prevents its wearer from stinking. The exact composition of this material was not disclosed but I assume at least part of it may be a silver alloy. 

Wakata says that even after having worn the garments for a week no olfactory evidence could be noted. Had this been just his opinion it might not have meant much - it is common knowledge that people with a really bad b.o. problem tend to be blissfully unaware of the waft of noxious odours emanating from their armpits. But Wakata also asked his co-astronauts whether they noticed anything discomfiting and received no complaints. These astronauts are a pretty straightforward lot so you can safely assume they don't resort to any white lies.

Even more remarkably - though this is hardly commented on in media reports: The designers of this undeniably useful product have gone a step further and accepted a truly daunting challenge, as can be seen in the photograph: the stink-free sock. The fact that we haven't been reading much on this leads me to believe that they must have encountered some snag that they still need to solve before that product too can go into field testing. 

So much for the original news.

And here is my take on it:

The design of these tucks and as far as I know also the idea for the project originated from Kyoto Women's University. The design team was led by Yoshiko Taya, obviously an expert on human spaceflight ergonomics and the effects of spaceflight on the human physiology. 

Of course, before starting the design work, someone has to see the need. I don't think it's entirely coincidental that this was conceived of by a female team ... rather, we should consider the possibility that men simply tend to be less finely attuned to the underlying problem. Perhaps the male half of the world population should take this as a subliminal message and pay heed.

Media reports mostly did not go any further than poking fun at the concept - along the lines of "more weird stuff from those Japanese". Is that an intelligent reaction? Is it justified? Aren't those people who take the mickey missing something essential here? Fact is, a team of experts tackled a challenging engineering problem and solved it (Let's just trust them to fix the socks problem, too.).

The fibre coating must be extremely light, flexible and chemically stable. It shall neither cause allergic reactions nor shall it irritate the skin or occasion any other discomfiture. It shall be resistant to chafing and laundering. At the same time, it shall not impede the garments ability to soak up sweat. If this sounds like a highly demanding set of requirements to you, then that's because it is a highly demanding set of requirements. You'd expect people to de duly impressed if someone goes and solves that task, right? However, apparently, impressed, they're not. 

I'd say that there is a significant market for such products, once the designers will have sorted out the teething problems. This market should extend far beyond the space business. That's the definition of a spin-off. I'm thinking not only of extreme sports and medical applications, such as patients who are temporarily forced to reduce their personal hygiene by their medical condition, or others who suffer from a robust body odour problem that is impervious even to painstaking adherence to hygiene.

No, I assume that the prime customer base will be in that legion of road warriors, the growing army of business travellers who, in our globalized world economy, are forced by circumstances to attend business meetings right after transoceanic flights and who have a real concern that the socks they've been wearing throughout a very long, arduous day may be ... well, stankin' up the place and thus antagonizing their business associates, if you see what I mean. Smirk if you like, but don't tell me that this is a far-fetched scenario. 

There obviously is a wide range of potential applications for such products and an equally broad range of market opportunities. Those who scoff now may find out to their chagrin, in the near future, that they are losing market shares in an environment that is changing very quickly and fundamentally with the advent of a superior technology. This market will then be dominated by others who are visionary enough to see beyond the immediate reason to scoff.

This happens all the time, and it will happen again. 

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  1. Dave Control case?
    15.07.2009 | 17:13

    Wonderful idea but surely this should be compared to a control case before a positive result can be claimed. Maybe astronauts don't sweat much. We need him to wear his normal boxers for a week in space and then let the others do the comparison.

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