Sabrina Thompson’s art teacher in 12th grade told her that she would be the perfect engineer.
But when a male physics professor advised Thompson not to go to college because of her gender, his narrow-minded comments instead sent her on a journey that eventually led to NASA.
“I decided I was going to major in engineering to prove this guy wrong,” Thompson told Space.com. “You don’t tell me that I can’t do it. Because I was such a child. To be honest, I don’t want other girls to experience this.”
Two decades and three college degrees later, Thompson (who is now an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland) is working on a space suit project on Kickstarter in his spare time. (will open in a new tab) in works. Her goal is to inspire young girls and combine her longstanding interests in fashion, physics and space.
The space fashion venture is an offshoot of her existing Girl in Space Club project. (will open in a new tab)which aims to “make room for women” through fashion, workshops, and debut sci-fi youth novel Girl in Space: The Path. (will open in a new tab) (Bowker, 2020).
In the photo: The evolution of the spacesuit
(Image credit: Torren Moore)
For millennials like Thompson, the tangerine-colored flight suit is reminiscent of the orange “pumpkin” flight suits NASA astronauts wore inside spacecraft during launch and landing.
But there is a key difference: This design allows for bodies that are not male, as opposed to the 1980s starter suit, the 1990s advanced rescue suit, or the 1960s US military technology on which these suits were based. (By the way, the marketing of a “female” suit refers to the anatomy, not necessarily the sex of the person.)
Thompson said the idea for the women’s space suit came from someone who was strategizing with her on future Girl in Space projects; Advisors include space luminaries such as former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott and Sian Proctor of Inspiration4, who flew a SpaceX spacecraft in 2021 and became the first black female astronaut.
“I just laughed at it,” Thompson said of the advice at first, but once she started doing her research, she recalled how NASA’s first all-female spacewalk was canceled in 2019 due to a size issue in orbit. which was later resolved by sending more parts into space.
RELATED: NASA astronauts talk about women’s epic spacewalk in Washington Post article
However, the spacesuits and flight suits currently used in orbit are “primarily for men,” according to Thompson, who hopes her flight suits will solve several problems women face. “If you’ve ever put it on and gone to the bathroom, it sucks,” she said with a laugh.
Thompson’s suit is only meant to be worn inside a spacecraft, and he already has one major customer: Hypatia I. (will open in a new tab)a female-led mission that will visit a similar habitat of the Mars Society’s Martian Desert Research Station in Utah in April 2023. Like Thompson, Hypatia is committed to helping girls and underrepresented groups make careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).
Related: Space has a diversity problem – and big institutions like universities can do something about it
(Image credit: Pat Burke)
“I worked very hard to give space to more students,” Thompson said, noting that her downtown New York childhood rarely matched the privileged experiences of other engineers she interacted with on the job. “Most of the kids I know growing up – and even know now – they know so much about sports, and I know so much about shoes and fashion.”
When Hidden Figures was released in 2015, Thompson came up with an idea to connect with these kids. Like Katherine Johnson and other NASA engineers and mathematicians depicted in this film, Thompson is black. According to her, this film served as a starting point for children during performances that she gave at schools in the Baltimore area, near Goddard.
Simultaneously, Thompson began to develop a curriculum on topics such as equipping astronauts for a mission and designing shoes for exploring the lunar surface.
Thompson stressed that her project is not meant to compete with vendors tasked with creating space suits for NASA’s upcoming Artemis moon excursions, but rather an early-stage creative venture in which she enlists students along the way.
Related: NASA selects suit maker for first Artemis lunar rovers
(Image credit: Nando Alvarez)
No matter how the project is funded, Thompson says the design could be repurposed into an airtight flight suit for many jobs that need it, such as military helicopter pilots. Thus, the opportunities will be much greater than even in the rapidly growing manned space market, where space tourists join professional astronauts.
Meanwhile, Girl in Space has hired two high school students from New Jersey who, along with several college students, are doing research on space suits for school loans. Work continues to add new interaction options, such as more books and projects related to computer programming and even 3D printing of parts.
“We want to do what we call space fashion, but it’s more than that,” Thompson said of Girl in Space. “It also opens doors for young ladies who may think they don’t have a place.”
Thompson said her goal is to show that you don’t have to be a “wunderkind” to get involved in the space economy, especially since it’s moving beyond government programs so quickly. “I think since NASA opened that gate, if you will. There is just so much room for research, for research. And it should not be completely limited by the state budget.”
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of Why Am I Taller? (will open in a new tab)? (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), space medicine book. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace. (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or facebook (will open in a new tab).