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NASA Engineer and Girl In Space Founder Talks New Frontiers – WWD

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Somehow Sabrina Thompson is completely at ease with the unlikely trifecta of art, aerospace and entrepreneurism.

Aside from being a full-time NASA employee and atmospheric scientist, she is an artist, founder of the streetwear brand Girl in Space and is developing a prototype suit for female astronauts to wear en route to space or underneath Extra-Vehicular Activity suits.

Wannabe space travelers will be able to buy the $600 flight suit she has designed for consumers and will soon be produced in her home base city of Baltimore. It has been developed with the incubator Sew Bromo and Belvidere Terrace Atelier. Through Girl in Space’s nonprofit arm, Thompson plans to use art and fashion to offer STEM education to high school girls.

Having joined NASA in 2010, she now designs orbit trajectories for space missions. Translation? “I don’t want to sound like a GPS, but I basically calculate how much it costs in terms of fuel and then the path that we’re going to take to get from Point A to Point B. So if we leave Earth to get to another planet, I design the trajectory to get to that other planet, and then the orbit, the fly-by or whatever path we take to get to the target destination,” she explained.

Unlike generations of children who have dreamed of becoming astronauts, Thompson said working for NASA wasn’t something that she ever envisioned. “I didn’t know my job existed until I started working there,” she said. “To be honest, I stumbled upon this.”

As a child growing up in Roosevelt, New York, she was either in her bedroom with the door closed — music blasting — drawing her own characters or out on the basketball court. Her mother worked as a nurse and her father drove charter buses. As “a pretty good student” and the valedictorian of her class, Thompson said her high school art teacher helped her choose a major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “She said, ‘You’re good at math and science, and you’re very creative. Why don’t you try mechanical engineering?’” Thompson said.

That advice eventually led to internships, including one at NASA. Before joining NASA full-time, she earned a graduate degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. More recently, she completed a second graduate degree in atmospheric physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Nike, Free People and Lucky Brand are a few of her favorite brands. She said “she also likes ethnic clothes,” and buys fabric during occasional trips to India to make her own styles. A bit of a sneakerhead who had practically every pair of Air Jordans in multiple colors, Thompson said she has tried to grow out of that “but it’s not happening.” She has, however “slowed down a lot” and has sold some of the 75 pairs, due to necessity. “I sold them because I was running out of space,” said the Baltimore-based Thompson.

In 2018, she started Girl in Space, after realizing that something was missing from her life. “I had a great job that was satisfying my curiosity about how things worked. It allowed me to grow in technical areas. But that artist inside of me was internally starving,” Thompson said.

Having not taken the brand too seriously initially while still searching for a niche, in early 2020 that switched, with Thompson gaining some mentoring. Now the direct-to-consumer label is starting to consistently be profitable through online sales and pop-ups. A $125 jean jacket, a $40 “Eva T-shirt” and the $25 “Universe Inside Me” digital art print are some of the offerings.

The space suit prototype that is being developed for female astronauts is to be worn during missions for launch and entry. Extensive research and development will be needed, according to Thompson, who is in the early stages of connecting with partners, speaking with potential investors and applying for grants. The design could potentially be modified to be customized for the launch requirements of companies in the private sector of aerospace.

Still in the research and design phase, she said the aim is to create something stylish and for the female form. “If you look at all the astronaut suits that have been designed, they were designed with the male in mind, not the female,” she said, noting how an all-female space walk had to be postponed in early 2019 due to the lack of spacesuits to fit the women astronauts.

Taking into account research and development, testing, sourcing different materials and replacement items, the development of a spacesuits requires millions of dollars. The in-flight suit that is in development will “definitely be cheaper than that,” Thompson said.

Currently, the Delaware-headquartered ILE dominates the spacesuit business, and is one of the companies that Thompson will speak with about potentially working together. Under Armour, which designs the suits for Virgin Galactic and is housed in Baltimore, is another potential partner. “Iron Man” costume designer José Hernández, who designed the suits for SpaceX, is another possibility.

Research and development will take at least until the middle of 2023, Thompson said. Making the distinction that each space vehicle requires a different type of suit, Thompson emphasized how each design needs to integrate into a system. “You’re not just sitting and taking a ride to space. You want to be integrated into your launch vehicle. There might be some things that need to be integrated into the suit that is specific to that launch vehicle,” she said. “There is a lot of research that we have to take into account. It will be stylish, but it also has to be functional. That’s key.”

The distance to be traveled, of course, is another factor in design. A balloon launch, for example, allows people to get out of the earth’s atmosphere close enough to see space, but without orbiting the earth. Being within range to see where our atmosphere ends and space begins requires a totally different vehicle than the more powerful vehicle that SpaceX might use to get people into orbit, said Thompson. “There is a lot more that could go wrong in general, just the further out that you go,” she said, adding that further personal research is needed about the Virgin Galactic vehicles.

Since NASA uses SpaceX launch vehicles more often for its missions, she understands their system a little more due to the numerous rules and regulations that must be checked before being used for NASA missions. “You can be in space for months. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are not there yet, as far as I know,”  she said. “The suits are OK for where they are now — to touch space. But what about in orbit? You have a longer destination if maybe we’re going to Mars or the moon. That’s totally different.”

Describing NASA astronauts as “the prime” compared to those flying with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic, Thompson said, “NASA astronauts are trained to perform different tasks on the International Space Station. They’re pilots. They’re doing research up there. They’re doing a lot of things. They’re not just taking a ride to space. It’s a totally different experience and environment. These are things that we have to take into consideration.”

Having twice applied to go to space with NASA, including in the summer of 2020, Thompson is planning to try again in 2024. “They say it takes two or three tries before you get selected,” she said.

With South Korea becoming the seventh nation to use a homegrown rocket for a successful satellite launch earlier this week, NASA continues to set the standards despite an influx of private companies getting into aerospace. “You have so many companies that have popped up in the space industry in the last couple of years. It’s insane,” she said. “It’s partially because, when you work for the government, there are rules and regulations. There is a lot of bureaucracy and things that need to take place before you can move forward with initiatives. When a new administration comes in, everything you’ve worked for, maybe for the past four years or eight years, those programs could be pushed off to the side to focus on something else. When you have people from private industry working on space, you don’t have those issues.”

Noting how many SpaceX employees previously worked for NASA, Thompson said other private companies have been inspired by how successful SpaceX has been and are following suit. “Globally, this is happening. A lot of people are coming together in different countries — in Africa, all over Europe, in India and of course in China. I strongly believe this is the future. We will see more astronauts outside of NASA astronauts.”




Somehow Sabrina Thompson is completely at ease with the unlikely trifecta of art, aerospace and entrepreneurism.

Aside from being a full-time NASA employee and atmospheric scientist, she is an artist, founder of the streetwear brand Girl in Space and is developing a prototype suit for female astronauts to wear en route to space or underneath Extra-Vehicular Activity suits.

Wannabe space travelers will be able to buy the $600 flight suit she has designed for consumers and will soon be produced in her home base city of Baltimore. It has been developed with the incubator Sew Bromo and Belvidere Terrace Atelier. Through Girl in Space’s nonprofit arm, Thompson plans to use art and fashion to offer STEM education to high school girls.

Having joined NASA in 2010, she now designs orbit trajectories for space missions. Translation? “I don’t want to sound like a GPS, but I basically calculate how much it costs in terms of fuel and then the path that we’re going to take to get from Point A to Point B. So if we leave Earth to get to another planet, I design the trajectory to get to that other planet, and then the orbit, the fly-by or whatever path we take to get to the target destination,” she explained.

Unlike generations of children who have dreamed of becoming astronauts, Thompson said working for NASA wasn’t something that she ever envisioned. “I didn’t know my job existed until I started working there,” she said. “To be honest, I stumbled upon this.”

As a child growing up in Roosevelt, New York, she was either in her bedroom with the door closed — music blasting — drawing her own characters or out on the basketball court. Her mother worked as a nurse and her father drove charter buses. As “a pretty good student” and the valedictorian of her class, Thompson said her high school art teacher helped her choose a major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “She said, ‘You’re good at math and science, and you’re very creative. Why don’t you try mechanical engineering?’” Thompson said.

That advice eventually led to internships, including one at NASA. Before joining NASA full-time, she earned a graduate degree in aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech. More recently, she completed a second graduate degree in atmospheric physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Nike, Free People and Lucky Brand are a few of her favorite brands. She said “she also likes ethnic clothes,” and buys fabric during occasional trips to India to make her own styles. A bit of a sneakerhead who had practically every pair of Air Jordans in multiple colors, Thompson said she has tried to grow out of that “but it’s not happening.” She has, however “slowed down a lot” and has sold some of the 75 pairs, due to necessity. “I sold them because I was running out of space,” said the Baltimore-based Thompson.

In 2018, she started Girl in Space, after realizing that something was missing from her life. “I had a great job that was satisfying my curiosity about how things worked. It allowed me to grow in technical areas. But that artist inside of me was internally starving,” Thompson said.

Having not taken the brand too seriously initially while still searching for a niche, in early 2020 that switched, with Thompson gaining some mentoring. Now the direct-to-consumer label is starting to consistently be profitable through online sales and pop-ups. A $125 jean jacket, a $40 “Eva T-shirt” and the $25 “Universe Inside Me” digital art print are some of the offerings.

The space suit prototype that is being developed for female astronauts is to be worn during missions for launch and entry. Extensive research and development will be needed, according to Thompson, who is in the early stages of connecting with partners, speaking with potential investors and applying for grants. The design could potentially be modified to be customized for the launch requirements of companies in the private sector of aerospace.

Still in the research and design phase, she said the aim is to create something stylish and for the female form. “If you look at all the astronaut suits that have been designed, they were designed with the male in mind, not the female,” she said, noting how an all-female space walk had to be postponed in early 2019 due to the lack of spacesuits to fit the women astronauts.

Taking into account research and development, testing, sourcing different materials and replacement items, the development of a spacesuits requires millions of dollars. The in-flight suit that is in development will “definitely be cheaper than that,” Thompson said.

Currently, the Delaware-headquartered ILE dominates the spacesuit business, and is one of the companies that Thompson will speak with about potentially working together. Under Armour, which designs the suits for Virgin Galactic and is housed in Baltimore, is another potential partner. “Iron Man” costume designer José Hernández, who designed the suits for SpaceX, is another possibility.

Research and development will take at least until the middle of 2023, Thompson said. Making the distinction that each space vehicle requires a different type of suit, Thompson emphasized how each design needs to integrate into a system. “You’re not just sitting and taking a ride to space. You want to be integrated into your launch vehicle. There might be some things that need to be integrated into the suit that is specific to that launch vehicle,” she said. “There is a lot of research that we have to take into account. It will be stylish, but it also has to be functional. That’s key.”

The distance to be traveled, of course, is another factor in design. A balloon launch, for example, allows people to get out of the earth’s atmosphere close enough to see space, but without orbiting the earth. Being within range to see where our atmosphere ends and space begins requires a totally different vehicle than the more powerful vehicle that SpaceX might use to get people into orbit, said Thompson. “There is a lot more that could go wrong in general, just the further out that you go,” she said, adding that further personal research is needed about the Virgin Galactic vehicles.

Since NASA uses SpaceX launch vehicles more often for its missions, she understands their system a little more due to the numerous rules and regulations that must be checked before being used for NASA missions. “You can be in space for months. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are not there yet, as far as I know,”  she said. “The suits are OK for where they are now — to touch space. But what about in orbit? You have a longer destination if maybe we’re going to Mars or the moon. That’s totally different.”

Describing NASA astronauts as “the prime” compared to those flying with Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic, Thompson said, “NASA astronauts are trained to perform different tasks on the International Space Station. They’re pilots. They’re doing research up there. They’re doing a lot of things. They’re not just taking a ride to space. It’s a totally different experience and environment. These are things that we have to take into consideration.”

Having twice applied to go to space with NASA, including in the summer of 2020, Thompson is planning to try again in 2024. “They say it takes two or three tries before you get selected,” she said.

With South Korea becoming the seventh nation to use a homegrown rocket for a successful satellite launch earlier this week, NASA continues to set the standards despite an influx of private companies getting into aerospace. “You have so many companies that have popped up in the space industry in the last couple of years. It’s insane,” she said. “It’s partially because, when you work for the government, there are rules and regulations. There is a lot of bureaucracy and things that need to take place before you can move forward with initiatives. When a new administration comes in, everything you’ve worked for, maybe for the past four years or eight years, those programs could be pushed off to the side to focus on something else. When you have people from private industry working on space, you don’t have those issues.”

Noting how many SpaceX employees previously worked for NASA, Thompson said other private companies have been inspired by how successful SpaceX has been and are following suit. “Globally, this is happening. A lot of people are coming together in different countries — in Africa, all over Europe, in India and of course in China. I strongly believe this is the future. We will see more astronauts outside of NASA astronauts.”

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