From Neil Armstrong’s ‘small step' in 1969 to Elon Musk’s ‘Starman’ accelerating through space in 2018, sneaker technology has played a crucial role in getting humankind to the stars. NASA’s jet shoes powered by your big toe, MIT’s vibrating sensors in the sole, and kicks specifically designed to colonise Mars, these are the sneakers that continue to define our voyage into space.
'It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.' — Neil Armstrong.
TAP YOUR TOES TO LAUNCH INTO OBLIVION
In the 1960s, NASA developed shoe technology torn straight from your wildest reveries of space exploration: jet shoes. Similar to an archaic rendition of Tony Stark’s in Iron Man, NASA’s John D. Bird built a shoe that would release pressurised gas when pushing down on your big toe.
But why stick jets on the shoes?
NASA’s team of engineers during the 60s were unsure of the exact challenges humankind would face when reaching for the stars; the more mobility in a vacuum, the better. Taking design cues from ‘Flying Platform’ (engineering that utilised ducted fans for elevation and shifting human body weight for control), Bird hoped to free up the astronauts’ hands in space. Designed to be worn over the astronauts’ boots, the jet shoes operated by pressing a toe switch, which would send a burst of compressed gas to the thruster. For directional control, the astronaut would simply point his or her feet in the opposite direction.
So why aren’t we colonising space with our big toes, impressing alien life forms with our opposable thumbs and our newfound freedom to use them?
Although the technology would later be used for designs like the Man Manoeuvring Unit in the 80s (think: jetpacks from Gravity), NASA weren’t convinced that toe switches would be easy to operate in a pressurised space suit, nor were they sure how such an unwieldy, externally-mounted system might function in space. (No, you aren’t ‘coming in peace’ rocketing towards your new neighbours in jet boots).
NASA actually released the ‘jet shoes’ patent to the public, envisaging a kind of real life Tony Stark to build them. NASA runs a description of the technology as follows: ‘An apparatus for the attachment to the feet of a person desiring extravehicular space locomotion having fluid thruster controlled by the toes of the person’.
Anyone else seeing a potential Jordan Brand colab here? The Jet Shoe Jumpman?
ARE YOU VIBRATING OR JUST HAPPY TO SEE THE STARS?
Not so much looking to launch astronauts into the sky but make their journey across extraterrestrial terrain a little easier, MIT have been implementing tech that helps the individual navigate tough conditions.
It wasn’t mid-air mobility that was causing astronauts issues, but repeatedly falling; the inability to see and feel the terrain was causing astronauts to lose their balance, risking a puncture to their spacesuit, or depleting valuable oxygen reserves when trying to get up. With that in mind, researchers at MIT developed built-in sensors and mini motors that vibrate depending on the kind of terrain the astronaut confronts. Looking to develop sensors along the toe and heel of the silhouette, the sneaker was specifically designed for Mars. But MIT’s tech is not only being tested for missions to Mars, but for those of us still on earth, like firefighters, who constantly cite their inability to navigate terrain, or for those with an impaired visual capacity.
DIRECTIONS TO THE EDGE OF THE EARTH, PLEASE
French designer Clement Fernandes has also been working on a sneaker specifically for Mars. Developing a pair of Y-3 x SpaceX concept sneakers, Fernandes put together a complex material build designed to withstand Mars’ 52-degree temperatures and dangerous sandstorms.
The Y-3 x SpaceX uppers are made of carbon nanotubes, which contract the fibres of the nylon, creating a specific, tailored fit. In order to combat the uneven, stony surface of Mars, Fernandes implemented a multi-density EVA structure designed to give ample cushioning with a better stride.
Taking aesthetic cues from the deep, sandy reds of Mars, Fernandes built the Y-3 to promote human settlement on Mars, and, look, the way things are going on our little blue planet, we’ve already preordered a half dozen.
LACE MY SNEAKERS, HAL
The ‘Bok have also stepped up with some fresh steeze for space, landing one of the prettiest kicks for interstellar travel with the Floatride Run. Worn by astronauts ferried from Boeing’s CST-Starliner to the International Space Station, Reebok’s build is a far cry from the kind of monstrous boots worn in early expeditions by Apollo 10, whose designs looked like a ‘hard-soled loafer coated in marshmallow paint’.
To be fair, early boot designs by NASA reflected the fact that engineers had no idea what the surface of the moon was made up of:
‘There was this fear that the Lunar Module or the astronauts would sink into the dust’ — Joe Kosmo, Apollo 11 NASA engineer.
THE DRIP FALLS SLOW IN SPACE
We’re now so aware of the contours of the moon we’ve effectively managed to commercialise the stars. In 2023, Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket will take Earth's first private passenger around the moon and, as we continue to step further into the universe, sneaker technology will not only help astronauts reach for the stars, it will continue to help those of us still tying our laces on this little blue and green planet we call Earth.