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ILC Dover continues manufacturing legacy with space living fabric

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ILC Dover continues to work on space materials, including fabrics to help modules to low-Earth orbit. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SIERRA SPACE

ILC Dover is still in the space game, but instead of helping pioneer the spacesuit materials needed for some of the first forays into the great unknown, it’s now helping create the foundation of a space habitat that could someday usher in a new way of living and working.

Employees from the company’s Frederica location and its team in Houston, Texas, are behind the design and manufacturing of fabrics that make up the LIFE habitat being produced in partnership with Colorado-based commercial space company Sierra Space. The technology (LIFE stands for “Large Integrated Flexible Environment”) as designed today is about one-third the volume of the International Space Station and is being designed as a commercial option that would some day provide shelter to people who live and work in space, according to a recent press release.

The habitat relies on layers of expandable, woven fabrics produced by ILC Dover, including those used in its pressure shell, which recently passed an important stage of testing that showed the 20-foot-plus-tall inflatable shell could withstand the pressures of space.

“A lot of the engineering principals but also the manufacturing know-how that lends itself to being successful… a lot of that has heritage coming from the spacesuit side of the business, which is what ILC has been doing for 60 years now,” said James Kirwan, program manager of space habitats for ILC Dover.  “What we’ve learned over 60 years, we’ve applied to this product.”

The layer of the LIFE habitat produced by ILC Dover that recently underwent the testing is made from Vectran straps, which the companies say are “stronger than steel when inflated” and that provide “high margins of safety under pressure.” Kirwan compared it to a thicker version of a seatbelt, except it’s four times stronger than steel and made of a different kind of raw material produced by another Japanese company.

“Vectran can perform under extreme loading scenarios and still not break,” Kirwan said. About five dozen ILC employees have supported the project thus far, which calls for not only a design that can last the extreme environment in space, but one that can be sustained up to 60 years.

“Even though this is something that’s new and not yet in space being used, it is all based on the foundations that we have already established with the spacesuit,” Kirwan said. “All of the local sewers who have supported ILC over the last 60 years, that same base, that same workforce is what is being applied to this product.”

The recently announced successful testing of the design for the LIFE Habitat’s pressure shell is just one layer that ILC and Sierra Space are working on. 

“We are driving the reinvention of the space station that will shape a new era of humanity’s exploration and discovery in Low Earth Orbit and beyond,” Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice said in the press release. “Sierra Space’s inflatable space station technology offers the absolute largest in-space pressured volume, the best unit economics per on-orbit volume and lowest launch and total operating costs.” 

The project requires figuring out not only how to design specific soft goods products, but also how to integrate them into the larger system that will include environmental controls, life support systems and other hard machinery, all of which will be required to sustain life outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Plus, they’ll need to make sure the habitat is protected from meteors and space debris, and also get NASA’s approval. Kirwan said Sierra Space is hoping to have the technology in operation by 2027, which means a lot more testing will be underway in the coming years.


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