Female astronauts: How performance products like space suits and bras are designed to pave the way for women’s accomplishments

On my first day of spring break, I woke up to way more emails than necessary and a flurry of activity on my social media. Acquaintances from near and far wrote about “patriarchy,” “NASA seems to have a history of lady issues” and posted emojis of sad faces and encouragement to my students to fix the situation.

The situation in question was NASA’s cancellation of an all-female spacewalk, citing the lack of a spacesuit in the right size.

I’m the director of the Sports Product Design Graduate Program at the University of Oregon, and equality in product design is my jam. Playing soccer as a Title IX athlete led me to the goal of my life’s work. Although we were breaking boundaries as female athletes, the products we wore were made for men and did not fit our bodies. There were no sport bras, so we played in the bras we wore to school with underwires and no sweat management. Although we were allowed and encouraged to play, we did not feel like we belonged. No one made products for us.

The news of the cancellation of the all-female spacewalk triggered a flashback to my childhood. Just when female astronauts were finally “allowed” to work together as a team, unchaperoned by male colleagues, a glitch in the product ecosystem ruined a landmark achievement. An all-female spacewalk has been a goal that women have been aspiring to since the 1960s.

Jerrie Cobb, testing the Gimbal Rig in the Altitude Wind Tunnel in April 1960. The Gimbal Rig was used to train astronauts to control the spin of a tumbling spacecraft. NASA

My path to product equality

My journey to become the best researcher and designer I could be began in high school. I wanted to create, size and fit products for the female body, helping women perform at their maximum potential. It has been a 30-year journey.

In college, I learned about designing for the female form. This included inventing new materials, studying the body anthropometrically physiologically, biomechanically and psychologically.

Learning about materials is important for product innovators, because they have so many levers – fibers, yarns, constructions and finishes – that can be manipulated to develop new technologies, like Nike FlyKnit, in which a knitting machine for manufacturing sweaters was engineered to make performance shoe uppers for athletes.

Anthropometrics is a discipline of human factors engineering that allows us to describe the body shape and size of different populations like men, women, children of specific ages and ethnicities; through circumferencial measurements of the areas like the chest, waist and hip; through understanding the volumes of various body parts like the torso; and through cross-sections – which helps designers understand how tissue is distributed in a specific region of the body like the breast.

Designers and engineers study physiology to develop product systems to regulate body temperature and biomechanics to understand mobility within apparel structures. We also study psychology – to understand how humans perceive attributes like color, touch and texture, which can greatly influence how acceptable a new product is for a user.

My university experiences provided an employment opportunity to work for the Department of Defense, just at the time when women were first allowed to fly in combat. I also spent about 20 years of my career working for a major sports company, leading efforts in women’s performance product innovation, including footwear, bras and equipment.

And now, I’m a college professor where I have students who are keen to invent new products for women. My student Jessie Silbert just completed a project designing gear for female Muslim runners. I currently have a student, Olivia Echols, who is working on her master’s thesis and designing new intravehicular activity suits for space station activities, which includes determining how products should fit for women. My colleagues have also worked for NASA. They do care about women and the future of spaceflight for women, and like me, they are dedicated to gender equality. So, if you were ever thinking there must be a lack of people that care or have the talent to do the work – there isn’t.