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NASA and the Evolution of the Swimsuit

So far, Michael Phelps has won an amazing six gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Phelps and fellow US teammates have sworn by their sponsor, Speedo, and their brand new swimsuit line, the Speedo LZR Racer. It is being marketed as “the fastest swimsuit in the world” and has indeed sparked controversy based on its ability to vastly “outperform” other suits.

And how does one swimsuit outperform another exactly? Well the LZR was designed to have the lowest water friction drag while compressing the swimmer’s body into a smoother aqua-dynamic shape without restricting the range of body movement available. More specifically, the seams are “ultrasonically bonded” to ensure a fully smooth surface area while still lightweight and water-repellent. The fabric is being marketed under a special proprietary name, the Speedo Pulse fabric. It has been designed to “reduce muscle oscillation and skin vibration through powerful compression” (from the Speedo website). A corset like core is designed into the suit to support an optimum swimming posture while worn. Unlike the regular fashion suits seen in stores that hang flat on the hangers, these suits were designed in 3-D and still have the body shape when not worn so as to mimic a second skin. The suit is so tight and thin that it can take swimmers over thirty minutes just to put it on!

It was developed with the help of NASA; an obvious choice due to its’ decades-long history of wind tunnel friction research for spacecraft. NASA specifically tested over sixty types of potential fabrics to determine the one with the lowest drag. Speedo also collaborated with the Australian Institute of Sport and the University of Otago in New Zealand for testing of other components for the suit.

This is not the first time NASA’s space research has made waves in the evolution of competition swimming. In the early 1980s Langley Research Center was researching a way to minimize air drag on plane surfaces when it developed the Riblet. A Riblet is a tiny groove in the external material of the plane (or swimsuit). If Riblets are placed over the most turbulent areas of the object it can significantly alter the turbulence experienced. In 1996 a company named Arena North America developed the ribbed swimsuit based on this concept and placed riblets in the chest and buttocks areas of the swimsuit. Upon testing, it was shown to be over ten percent faster than any other swimsuit types previously developed at the time.

This technology has also been used for other non-aerospace or aquatic uses (to line pipes and ducts) and is a great example of scientific research’s utility for the general public.

Random Thoughts

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I am a little disappointed in Michael Phelps -- only 7 world records and not 8. Gee, other than that, I guess he did OK. ... Usain "lightening" Bolt looked like a man among boys in the 100 meter dash final. I cannot imagine that I would ever let up in the Olympic finals -- which is what Bolt did and as a result -- he blew a chance to really obliterate his own world record. Michael Johnson's world record in the 200 meter dash is not safe the way Bolt looked in the 100 (Bolt considers the 200 to be his best event). ... 41 year-old Dara Torres is amazing and a class act. ... NBC has so far shown fewer up close and personal type segments and the ones I have seen have been shorter. I am glad the networks have finally realized that this a sporting event -- not a daytime drama. ... I never liked the quote that "the hardest thing to do is sports is to hit a baseball" (obviously from a big baseball fan) because it draws a conclusion that I do not think is true from a sport in which the athletes do not seem as athletically gifted as athletes in some other sports. All you have to do is watch the women gymnasts perform on the 4" wide balance beam in gymnastics to begin to get my point.

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