Hello, friends! Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we explore the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms. Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:
If you’re planning to spend any amount of time floating around in outer space, you need to dress appropriately. You’ll need protection against solar and cosmic radiation. You’ll need protection against extreme temperatures, both extreme cold and extreme heat (direct sunlight in the vacuum of space can make things super hot super quick). Oh, and there are lots of tiny micrometeoroids whizzing about up there. You’ll need protection against those too.
Around the same time that the space shuttle program got going, NASA started using a new fabric for the outermost layer of their spacesuits. That fabric is still used today for spacesuits aboard the International Space Station. It’s called Orthofabric (sometimes spelled with a hyphen: Ortho-fabric).
Orthofabric is made by a company called Fabric Development Inc., based in Quakertown, PA. Orthofabric is made using three different synthetic fibers: Gore-Tex, Nomex, and Kevlar. As reported in several research papers (like this one or this one), Orthofabric consistently holds up well against the harsh conditions found in space. That’s why NASA keeps using it.
For these Sciency Words posts, I think it’s important to say something about the etymology of the word we’re talking about, but I had an extremely hard time finding any sort of etymology for this one.
The prefix “ortho-” comes from a Greek word meaning righteous, virtuous, or pure (hence the word orthodox). “Ortho-” can also mean upright or straight (hence the word orthopedic). But what do either of those meanings have to do with Orthofabric? The prefix “ortho-” also has a specialized meaning in chemistry, but based on my research, the chemistry sense of “ortho-” didn’t seem relevant to Orthofabric either.
So finally, I picked up the phone, called Fabric Development Inc., and asked. I was told the name Orthofabric was chosen after some back and forth consultation with NASA. The name doesn’t mean anything in particular. It’s just a name. I guess somebody thought it sounded good. End of story.
P.S.: NASA’s new Perseverance rover will be searching for life on Mars, but as a little side experiment Perseverance is also carrying a small sample of Orthofabric, along with samples of other commonly used spacesuit materials. NASA wants to see how well these spacesuit materials hold up in the windy and dusty Martian environment.
8 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Orthofabric”
They named it orthofabric because they can! That sounds very much like something astronomers would do!
LikeLiked by 2 people
Yeah, pretty much! I’d been thinking that maybe the chemical structure included some sort of orthogonal bond, or maybe the three different synthetic fibers were orthogonally woven together, or something like that. But when I found out it’s basically just a nonsense name, that didn’t really surprise me.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I love this. What a great bit of research.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Shocking amount of misinformation…
1. No such thing as Goretex (sic) fiber. Gore-Tex (trademark of W.L.Gore & Assoc.) is a fabric laminate utilizing a sheet of specially prepared PTFE (Teflon).
2. There is NO Gore-Tex, nor Kevlar, nor Nomex in the fabric used for the outer layer of EVA spacesuits. The fabric is woven from Vectran fibers.
3. NASA does not design or manufacture spacesuits; they are a US government agency that contracts with private companies to design and manufacture the systems and products they need. Every EVA spacesuit used by NASA from the Apollo era through today has been designed and manufactured by ILC Dover.
1. That was a typo. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. It’s fixed.
2. Pretty much any book or article that talks about Orthofabric will mention that it is a blend of Gore-Tex, Nomex, and Kevlar. Vectran is also used in spacesuit construction , but Ortho-fabric is the outermost layer. Please click the links I provided in the post, or click the link below and scroll down to the “EMU suit (Space Shuttle/ISS)” section:
3. I never said NASA manufactures their own spacesuits. You are correct that ILC Dover has been manufacturing spacesuits for NASA since the Apollo era; however, Fabric Development Inc. are the exclusive manufacturers of Ortho-fabric (or so they told me on the phone). I assume they sell the material to ILC Dover, which then makes and sells the spacesuits to NASA.
I’m not perfect, and I do make mistakes on this blog. But I did a lot of reading and a lot of research for this post, and I do not believe anything I wrote in this post to be in error (aside from the typo).
I work for ILC Dover (in our Space Systems Division) and can assure you much of what you wrote is incorrect. The outer (TMG) layer is Vectran (which is similar to Kevlar, but stronger). My intention was not to make anyone feel badly, only to provide correct information. ILC Dover are the exclusive EVA spacesuit providers to NASA for more than 50 years – we designed and manufactured the A7L Apollo suits, the current EMU, and we are working on the design of the next generation (xEMU and beyond).
Then I applaud you for the work you do for the sake of space exploration. If what I wrote is incorrect, then the publications I cited in my post are also incorrect. If you know of an article, paper, press release, or something along those lines about how Vectran is used as the outer layer of the T.M.G., I’d be very happy to look at it. Thus far, the only thing I can find on my own is that Vectran is used for the palms of the gloves in current generation E.M.U.s.