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: Gortex, 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.