The era of private space travel has officially begun, with both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin making their first fully crewed flights within days of each other, this July, amid huge public interest and industry acclaim.
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity was the first to successfully reach space – at an altitude of 53.5 miles – on 11 July, featuring a full crew, including the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. Meanwhile, Blue Origin completed New Shepard’s first human flight on 20 July, with a crew including company founder Jeff Bezos, younger brother Mark Bezos, 82-year old Wally Funk – the oldest person to fly in space – and then-19-year-old Oliver Daemen – the world’s first-ever commercial astronaut and the youngest person to fly in space.
One New York-based company had the privilege to be ‘on board’ for both missions: Tapis Corporation – a developer of high-performance fabrics normally found inside the cabins of the world’s leading airlines and business jets – is extremely proud to be supplying some of the materials used inside the cabins of both Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity and Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.
We’re actually involved in no less than four separate spacecraft projects. We’re honoured to have secured contracts to supply our fabrics to not only Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, but also to SpaceX and NASA.
Tapis and its long-term collaborator Ultrafabrics worked with Virgin Galactic and its appointed interior design firm, Seymourpowell, to provide a seating material constructed from Ultraleather Fusion Stretch. The fabric features a smooth, matte texture with extra flexibility to ensure it fits smoothly and tightly around the spaceship’s uniquely crafted and contoured seating.
Virgin Galactic also chose Tapis’ very own Tapisuede Flannel for Unity’s vertical wall surfaces. The high-performance non-woven fabric provides a soft and sophisticated finish, and is highly resistant to stains, fades and wrinkles, making it the perfect choice for such a hard-working interior, where passengers are actively encouraged to get out of their seats and enjoy the sensation of zero-gravity while bumping around the cabin and gazing down at the Earth below.
The goal of space tourism is to give passengers an unprecedented experience and view of Earth while experiencing zero gravity during low earth orbit. However, while floating around the cabin, passengers risk bumping into fixtures and fittings, so we had to ensure that our fabric finishes could be successfully bonded to shock-absorbing foams for maximum impact protection and cabin comfort. Our extensive range of Ultrafabrics products includes a unique foam substrate, giving an extra layer of protection for peace of mind.
Free to move around in comfort, VSS Unity’s crew were able to fulfill a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience during the flight, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training programme at Spaceport America.
For Blue Origin, Tapis and Ultrafabrics teamed up to work on a cabin interior featuring wall panels replete in Ultraleather Pro, finished in a ‘space chic’ White Wash tone. Durable, soft and highly stain resistant, Ultraleather Pro also offers antimicrobial protection for peace of mind. Meanwhile, Blue Origin seat accents feature Ultrasuede in Charcoal, with special attention paid to ensure a luxurious and smooth texture to the touch, while a non-woven structure allows the breathability and permeability required for passenger comfort.
“Big things start small,” said Jeff Bezos, after New Shepard’s successful flight to space. “We’ve got to do it the same way we did it with commercial airline travel. We’re in the barnstormer phase – but you know where these barnstormer phases lead? They lead to aircraft like 787s. We’re going to build a road to space so our kids can build the future.”
Strict rules designed to reduce and manage the risk to safety in the event of a fire govern the flammability and combustion performance of any materials used on board a spacecraft. Featuring a far more oxygen-rich environment than would be found inside a conventional airline cabin, both spacecraft programmes required Tapis to develop solutions with exceptional flame retardancy to meet the stringent requirements of travelling within an oxygen-rich environment.
In space, a fire can be incredibly hazardous. While our standard products fully comply with FAR 25.853 vertical-burn requirements, when you increase the oxygen content, they naturally burn for longer and are less prone to self-extinguish. We therefore had to customise and enhance their performance to prevent the surface spread of flames at the higher O2 level. To do so, we worked closely with experts at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility to ensure our materials met the space agency’s flammability, off gassing and compatibility requirements, and could ultimately deliver the much tougher flame retardance required.
Whether it’s for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s space tourism flights, or SpaceX and NASA’s commercial crew programme to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Tapis and Ultrafabrics are able to provide products with exceptional technical and aesthetic properties, which we can further customise to meet some of the most demanding environments ever encountered. They are literally ‘out of this world’!