Bright enough to be seen from space?
Two Toronto area knitters are participating in a really rather wonderful project: making socks to send into space!
I recently spoke with Emily Mooney and Catherine Goykhman about this project.
Emily, tell me about this Astro Socks project.
Over the past five years or so, NASA has been doing a whole lot of public outreach through social media. They’ve invited thousands of people to what were originally called NASA Tweetups but are now known as NASA Socials. These are chances to visit NASA locations, such as the Kennedy Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and NASA HQ in Washington, and get a chance to see behind the scenes and talk to NASA personnel, including astronauts. A big community of “spacetweeps” has been growing since NASA started doing this.
Penny Garner, a spacetweep in Washington State, went to a NASA tweetup and follows American astronaut Reid Wiseman on Twitter. He’s scheduled to launch to the International Space Station next May. He tweeted a picture of some of the socks he was packing, and she asked where astronauts’ socks come from. When he told her they’re bought at K-Mart, she offered to knit him some instead. He accepted the offer, and the initiative to make more socks for other astronauts has since, uh, skyrocketed. She contacted me a while ago (via Twitter, of course), and I finally got the first Canadian pair going last weekend, with Catherine’s help.
Penny is the one spearheading the project; her goal is to get as many people involved as possible, as a way to get them excited about human spaceflight. This article is about her involvement.
What’s your involvement?
Because NASA gave me a rare, once-in-a-lifetime gift… I feel a strong responsibility to share it as widely as I can. I’ve always been excited about looking up, but being mere meters from a vanload of people heading toward the vehicle that would take them off the planet was one of the most moving moments of my life. And the idea that future astronauts will be wearing the work of knitters’ hands — including mine — thrills me past words. This is a chance to connect two of my greatest passions and share them both.
Are there specific requirements for the socks?
There are indeed some specific requirements for the socks. They cannot contain any acrylic, which can combust in 100% oxygen inside a spacesuit. The astronauts asked at first for cotton socks, probably thinking wool would be thick and scratchy, and I think all the pairs going up next May are made of Cascade Fixation yarn. Penny recently got approval for 100% merino, though, and Catherine got some especially for this project.
Are you knitting for a particular astronaut?
There’s a Ravelry group with details about the individual astronauts who have requested socks. Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, has asked for bright yellow, which Catherine dyed specifically for her. Samantha, a captain and fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force, launches next November and will live on the station for about six months.
And you decided to make the knitting a community project?
Kate and friend Sue knitting on the Astrosocks.
Yes! The cuff of the first Canadian sock has stitches from at least 50 knitters, most of whom helped out at the Kitchener-Waterloo Knitters’ Fair. One young woman was nearly giddy at the chance to work on it, and coached her mother through her first-ever knitting on DPNs. I’ll be taking the first sock back to KW at the end of the month, so some who missed the chance last weekend will be able to contribute then.
I’ll be doing much of the knitting for the rest of the pair, taking them to yarn shops and my daughter’s school and anywhere else I can think of where there’d be knitters, and asking them to add stitches. (If the socks were entirely community-knit, gauge would be a mess, and if I asked people for ten stitches each, I’d need 3000 knitters. That would take much too long, and anyway, I am far too shy for that.)
What happens to the socks?
Each handknit pair will be worn for around a week. ISS residents don’t waste water on laundry; their used clothes go out with the garbage and burn up on reentry. So after the socks have been worn, they will become streaks of light in the sky.
I’m hoping to continue the initiative indefinitely. Canada has two astronauts in training at the moment, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen. Neither has a scheduled flight date yet but when they do, they’ll need socks.
Catherine, dyer extraordinaire
Catherine, tell me about how you got involved.
A few months ago, I was scrolling through my twitter feed and came across a tweet by Emily that caught my attention. She was looking for people who were interested in knitting socks for astronauts. I think my heart skipped a beat when I read her tweet. I want to knit socks for astronauts!
The thought of having a connection with astronauts who were actually going into space was very exciting for me. I’ve always been fascinated with space travel and when I was a kid I dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Before I responded to Emily’s tweet, it occurred to me that maybe I could take it one step further and dye the yarn that would become socks for an astronaut. I offered some hand dyed yarn to Emily’s project. My yarn may be going to space! I can’t describe how awesome this is.
Emily and I met in August to discuss the colours I would dye. We learned through the Astrosocks Ravelry group that Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti wanted some bright yellow socks. I have two very bright yellow colourways, and rather than choose one of the two, we decide to make two pairs.
At the moment, Emily is taking care of the self-striping Mango Smoothie sock and I’ve got the semi solid Mango. I’ll be taking a sock on tour with me when I visit yarn shops and do shows for Blueberry Pie Studio.
Both colorways are available in Catherine’s Blueberry Pie Studios Etsy shop if you’d like space socks of your very own…
To learn more about the project, visit the Ravelry group.