How did NASA make snow skiing safer?

By: Michael Franco

Hi-tech Insulators

Staying warm and cozy on the slopes and ski lifts might seem like a luxury, but it can actually increase a skier's safety, as well. Cold hands and extremities become slow hands and extremities, so keeping things at a sane temperature can help with reaction times -- and help you avoid dangerous accidents and frostbite.

Dealing with extreme temperatures is something NASA knows quite a bit about. In outer space, temperatures can drop as low as minus 148 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 100 degrees Celsius) [source: Bijlefeld and Burke].


That's why NASA hired a small company known as Aspen Systems, Inc. in Massachusetts to develop an insulating material for space missions. The company turned to a substance known as aerogel, which is made out of the same thing as glass but consists of 99.8 percent air, making it the lightest-known solid. A block of aerogel as big as an average person would weigh less than 1 pound (0.45 kilogram) but could support 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of weight [source: Bijlefeld and Burke]. Not only is it super strong and super light, but aerogel is also an outstanding insulator -- so insulating that crayons placed on top of a thin aerogel sheet won't melt from a flame placed underneath. And thanks to a process invented by Aspen, the previous production methods that made the material too fragile to handle were replaced with techniques that produced stable substances.

One of these substances is something Aspen calls Spaceloft, a commercial version of the materials made for NASA. The first company to create a jacket with Spaceloft was Italian clothes-maker Corpo Nove in 2001. Since then, many other apparel makers have seen the benefits of the material, and now Spaceloft can be found in the jackets of thousands of skiers around the world.

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