Why did NASA invent the ribbed swimsuit?

From Riblets to Water Corsets: the Speedo LZR
French swimmer Alain Bernard in his LZR Racer just before setting a world record time of 21.50 in the men's 50-meter freestyle
French swimmer Alain Bernard in his LZR Racer just before setting a world record time of 21.50 in the men's 50-meter freestyle
AP Photo/Michael Sohn

The heyday of the riblet has largely come and gone, but NASA's involvement in cutting-edge swimsuit design continues to be felt.

In 2007, NASA collaborated with Speedo to develop the LZR Racer, billed by Speedo as the world's fastest swimsuit. Before it was banned from competition (along with other high-tech bodysuits), the garment propelled swimmers to dominate their events at the Beijing Olympics. In fact, every gold medal in swimming at the games was won by an athlete wearing the LZR suit.

"People were breaking contracts with their suppliers and switching to LZR suits instead," said Daniel Lockney, spinoff program specialist in the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist.

The LZR demonstrates another way that NASA spins off its technology. Instead of developing the suit, the space agency provided the facilities and expertise that helped Speedo work out the kinks.

The suit was tested and computer modeled at NASA's Langley Research Center, where Speedo designers repurposed a wind tunnel normally used for aeronautics research to test around 100 fabrics to see which ones produced the least drag. The wind tunnel helped them perfect the design by testing for hydrodynamic characteristics and surface friction [source: Lockney].

The wind tunnel has also helped experts evaluate and develop designs for NASCAR, Formula 1 racing and motorcycles, adds Lockney.

Speedo's Langley testing produced a low-drag suit that was both lightweight and water-resistant. To reduce drag, designers came up with a streamlined zipper and eliminated stitching and joinery wrinkles by welding the fabric together ultrasonically. The resulting seams reduced drag by 6 percent and generated only slightly more friction than the fabric itself. The bonded and hidden zipper kicked up 8 percent less drag than a sewn zipper [source: Turner].

NASA and Speedo took the swimsuit a step further, however. Just as an aircraft or watercraft might be reshaped to improve fluid flow around it, the LZR swimsuit reshapes a swimmer, compressing key areas to make a faster shape -- like a corset for swimmers. According to Speedo, the compression saves energy by helping swimmers maintain proper form and accounts for a 5 percent gain in efficiency.

There you have it: Two ways NASA helped revolutionize the sport of swimming without setting out to do anything of the sort. It's all part of the exciting and often surprising world of NASA spinoffs.

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