Material Matters: Sneakers Of The Space Race
Date: June 21 2017
By: Adam Jane
The recently revealed Tom Sachs x Nike Mars Yard 2.0 was a welcome surprise for sneaker connoisseurs around the globe. Fans of the OG will be happy to get their hands on the new version, but they’ll also likely admit that Nike’s subbing out of the original Vectran panelling for common mesh is a little disappointing.
NASA used Vectran for the airbags that cushioned the touchdown of the Mars Pathfinder as well as Rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The strong, lightweight, thermally and chemically stable fibre has been on just about every manned space mission as a layer in NASA’s space suits. While it’s often little more than theatrics when an artist applies such a high-tech fibre to a collaborative sneaker, the industry looks to the skies for inspiration regularly, particularly when it comes to materials. For example, Vectran is also a key component of Nike’s exceptionally strong Flywire.
Sneaker design isn’t rocket science. The formula behind a fast, high-performance athletic shoe can be broken down into these basic elements: strength, weight, energy return and support. Sneaker manufacturers are often able to sacrifice support for weight, or strength for energy return, but when it comes to space travel, compromises are more complicated. It costs roughly $10,000 USD for every 1lb of gear added to a launch (or $22,000 USD for 1 kg), so it makes sense that international space agencies pursue the development of lighter, stronger materials. And who else reaps the benefits? The sneaker industry.
A heavy shoe might not drain the purse quite so dramatically, but 100g of extra weight is said to increase a runner’s energy cost by around 1 per cent; the average marathon runner who completes the race in around 40,000 steps is going to want the lightest possible shoe. However, when the rubber meets the road, even a feather-light running shoe is useless without good traction and support. One of the biggest innovations in sneaker history was made when an ex-NASA engineer named Frank Rudy approached Nike and suggested they utilise blow rubber moulding technology – which had been recently developed by the agency – to create shock absorption for shoes. The result was the 1978 Nike Air Tailwind – the first ever shoe to feature an Air unit.
The moulding technique was used to different effect by Vibram, who supplied the blown rubber Superflex outsole that set New Balance’s inimitable 990 in motion. The Compression Chamber technology created by AVIA, a subsidiary of Reebok, was also born from blow moulding tech.
The Dynacoil technology that made KangaROOS so popular throughout the 80s was developed with reference to the three-dimensional ‘spacer’ materials used for cushioning and ventilation in the Apollo-era lunar boots. The brand developed the technology after two years’ research and development, directly referencing studies performed by NASA’s Aerospace Research Applications Centre.
You also have NASA to thank for the squishy substance that keeps your soles in check. In order to help astronauts deal with lift off’s epic G-forces, their chairs were lined with a special kind of high viscoelasticity foam. In essence, NASA created memory foam to keep space-bound employees from bruising their buns. Beyond the sole unit itself, any seasoned sneaker buyer will know that a cushy insole makes a world of difference to a hard day on the grind – just think about the improvements offered by Chuck Taylors’ Lunarlon insoles or the Sk8-Hi’s UltraCush liner.
Overall, it can be hard to quantify exactly how much sneaker tech can be attributed to the space industry’s astro-nous. Different forms of Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coatings and thermal fabrics as well as modern textile laminating methods have all been worked on by smaller companies contracted by the world’s space agencies. Looking even further beyond the materials themselves, almost every element of the sneaker production line has been affected by space-age tech. Everything from bearing lubrication to factory-floor water recycling to the GPS technology used in logistics – even the little camera on your phone that lets you snap and ‘gram the heat on your feet – it’s all a result of the space race.
We can only imagine what the future of space travel has in store for the sneaker tech world, but in the meantime, Reebok can offer a glimpse. Earlier this year, Boeing revealed a space suit created for their CST-100 Starliner space capsule – due to launch as early as 2018 – featuring a sleek blue boot designed by Reebok. That’s right, following the footsteps of Ripley in her Alien Stompers, we’ll soon be wearing sneakers in space!
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at ‘The Shoes of Tomorrow’ today, The Technological Triumphs of Nike ACG and adidas Tubular.