Nudism in space: Why wear clothes anyway?

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Currently, doing laundry in microgravity is an unsolved engineering problem. The result is that clean clothes on the International Space Station have become a consumable resource. Clean clothes get launched to the space station regularly. When they are too dirty to wear, they just get stuffed into a used cargo capsule as trash.

For a more long-term mission where supply flights are not an option, like a manned Mars mission for example, this would be a problem. Shipping enough clothes for 9 months (even more when you don't want to wash clothes while staying on the Mars surface) would require quite a lot of valuable payload capacity.

But what about the simplest solution: Just don't wear any clothes. Human body hygiene in space is a solved problem. When astronauts stay nude during most of their intra-vehicular activities, the need for fresh clothes could be drastically reduced.

  • The astronauts are in a controlled environment, so protection from the weather is not required.
  • The everyday clothes ISS astronauts are wearing aren't going to protect them against any of the dangers of space travel, so safety is not an argument either.
  • The cultural stigma against nudity between the astronauts can be overcome. Nudist movements all around the world show that it is perfectly possible to have normal social interactions without wearing clothes.
  • The modesty of the astronauts towards the general public can be preserved by not livestreaming the whole mission. The long transfer phases between Earth and Mars are boring anyway. Public interest in actually seeing the astronauts can be limited to the critical mission phases. But these would just be a tiny fraction of the overall mission time. The astronauts could get dressed just for these occasions.

Am I overlooking some problems which would arise if astronauts would not wear clothes at all times and which would outweigh the problems caused by managing laundry?

Philipp

Posted 2017-12-31T13:53:59.527

Reputation: 5 995

1

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

PearsonArtPhoto 2018-01-02T13:08:26.197

9"The everyday clothes ISS astronauts are wearing aren't going to protect them against any of the dangers of space travel, so safety is not an argument either." - hmm, this one is just wrong. It would be like asserting you could wear no clothes in a lab or light factory or kitchen.Fattie 2018-01-02T15:44:06.043

@Fattie but you have no lab, factory or kitchen on spacecrafts, don't you?Ooker 2018-01-02T16:02:00.180

1hi @Ooker ! Notice the images below. The inside of a spacecraft is more slightly dangerous than a lab, light factory, or kitchen. (Indeed, it is all those things.)Fattie 2018-01-02T16:07:22.867

1@Fattie it might be two kinds of safety: safety to the craft and safety to the humans. Your comparison is about safety to the humans in my think, and I don't see how clothes help this. In such environments we have to wear specialized clothes, not normal clothes as in the images. And in spacecrafts, it has to be designed to be safe even when the humans are naked, I think.Ooker 2018-01-02T16:20:17.363

2Hi @ooker, it's pretty nonsensical. You wouldn't go with no clothes in a kitchen or a lab. Right? (if you don't agree with that, I'm not sure what to say.) Minor injuries on a spacecraft are strongly to be avoided. Just look at the two pictures below. (Really, I'd probably also wear light gloves in there - exactly as mechanics or house-builders often do.)Fattie 2018-01-02T16:52:41.647

12Another issue is you of course don't want feces, urine, menstrual fluid, sweat etc accumulating on surfaces. Indeed, this is of course exactly why nudists (which is great, viva FKK) often have a little towel or whatever for when they sit on chairs, use a bicycle, etc. It's a fun suggestion but a bit impractical.Fattie 2018-01-02T16:54:32.033

1@Fattie what I mean is that if dangerous environments require wearing protecting suits, and if spacecraft's are more dangerous than those as you suggested, then there would be no way for the astronauts to only wear t-shirts. Your last point makes sense though.Ooker 2018-01-02T17:40:32.130

@Fattie as a side note, there is very little sitting in microgravity but I do understand your analogy to a nudist towel. In communal saunas in Finland it is common to bring a linen towel or use provided disposable tissues. Having at least underwear on in space would keep pubic hairs out of the ventilation filters though other hair will still wind up there.KalleMP 2018-01-06T18:58:35.890

you've made me realize that spacecraft should, indeed, be a finnish sauna! now that would be cool.Fattie 2018-01-07T14:26:36.183

Answers

157

Clothes require laundry because they have accumulated dirt and other materials from the environment and their wearer. If the astronaut was not wearing those clothes then that material they captured would be released to the environment. In the space station it is a closed environment where such dirt and material would contribute to the accumulated hazards.

The purpose of clothes it to capture that material, such as dead skin, bodily fluids (such as sweat and so forth) and enable it to be disposed of. On earth we dispose of that material by recycling the clothes in a process we call laundry. In space it is more efficient to dispose of the hazardous material (we call dirt) within the capture container (we call clothes).

The other purpose of the clothes is to protect the astronauts from other day-to-day hazards to their body, such as abrasions and impacts. Socks, in particular, are quite important on the ISS as they protect the feet from the abrasions when hooked around the holding-bars when they are using their hand for work. Without this they would either be unable to work or would have sore upper feet.

Your implication that clothes are for modesty only only shows your gravity based cultural mind-set. In micro-gravity things look somewhat different.

Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩

Posted 2017-12-31T13:53:59.527

Reputation: 3 427

Dust is to my knowledge mostly human skin. How much does clothes influence that?Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen 2018-01-01T05:19:06.630

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@isanae I tried to locate the referenced source according to PubMed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Beamer%2C%20Paloma%5BAuthor%5D - and it appears to be this article https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19924944. An initial skimming of the text indicates that this is about modelling the source of the metals As and Pb indoors, and not as much about how much of dust is human skin.

Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen 2018-01-01T08:07:58.067

47only only shows your gravity based cultural mind-set ... ok that made me laugh... +1.David Grinberg 2018-01-01T18:21:32.507

2I might have missed the point, but why capturing dust and human skin is important? What hazards can it be?Ooker 2018-01-02T03:47:46.590

8For the “capture dead skin and sweat” argument to be valid you’d have to cover much more skin, especially the head.Michael 2018-01-02T08:52:42.280

1@Ooker Static electricity, clogging filters, starting fires... space habitats are tricky places to live in :) Even just having all that dust circulating in the air is going to be very annoying. You can't exactly open the window or use a vacuum cleaner...Luaan 2018-01-02T14:34:16.040

6@Luaan "You can't exactly open the window or use a vacuum cleaner" - I beg to differ. The window is one hell of a vacuum cleaner (and fire extinguisher, too). Just be sure to suit up and tie down everything that isn't dirt before you open it...aroth 2018-01-02T16:01:44.747

1+1 to "The other purpose of the clothes is to protect the astronauts from other day-to-day hazards to their body, such as abrasions and impacts." The first time an astronaut catches a nipple or other sensitive body part on one of those pointy metal protrusions lining the inside of the capsule they'll start rethinking removing all the protective layers between them and their environment.Neberu 2018-01-02T18:32:36.453

1Using clothes to capture "accumulated dirt and other materials from the environment" is a silly idea. The rest could me true, but it's mostly speculation.martinkunev 2018-01-03T15:53:40.080

1Laundry is not recycling: it's reuse. Recycling involves breaking down the material to its constituent parts and then reconstructing it. My washing machine has a window in the front so I'm quite certain it doesn't do that.David Richerby 2018-01-03T18:28:48.533

I agree with everything you said except: "gravity based cultural mind-set" Your own argument disproves this notion, as abrasion-protection and dead-skin-collection are purposes that function in "gravity based cultures".godskook 2018-01-04T14:37:44.910

1So, in Soviet Russia Space Station, clothes protect the environment from you! Interesting point.walen 2018-01-05T08:35:23.657

2You would also be cutting some of your options for possible recruits, if you require them to feel okay with nudeness, even when they're around other people. You would likely lose some of your best candidates this way.Panzercrisis 2018-01-05T17:01:31.907

Re "abrasions": that could be solved by engineering the environment and various interfaces to be smoother and more forgiving, not unlike toys and chairs for infants or the infirm, or Oxo style appliances.agc 2018-01-06T23:10:21.140

1"The purpose" --> "One purpose" Clothes serve many other purposes, some of which you even note. I find warmth to be suspiciously absent from your answer, though.jpmc26 2018-01-07T00:34:29.290

Sorry, but “sore upper feet” is complete nonsense, just like “sore outsides of the hands” is. Usually, you just wouldn’t do that. Or pad the actually hazardous object, not the body that most of the time does not touch it and hence does not need it. Plus, covering the toes like that is really stupid in space, as the feet are very useful additional grabbers and feelers. In fact, spacefaring people would rather have four hands than hands and feet. Finally, keeping them wrapped in cloth creates the ideal climate for nasty bacteria and fungi.Evi1M4chine 2018-01-07T15:40:18.447

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Clothing performs essential duties on the station in addition to modesty. They are an easy way to organize stuff. In addition to pockets, clothing is festooned with velcro strips for attaching tools, pens etc.

astronaut clothing

NASA is working on methods for washing clothes in space. Not surprisingly, they've studied the tradeoffs between including a washing machine in the mission and just supplying enough clean clothes to last the mission. The breakeven point for a washing machine is missions of about 1 year. For the ISS, missions are shorter than that and there are frequent resupplies, so it wasn't necessary to develop a washing machine earlier. For a Mars mission, it may become necessary.

The same argument for not wearing clothes in space is true for life on Earth: it'd be cheaper to run around naked. Less frequent washing and reduced wear would save money. Yet, nobody's doing that here on Earth.

Nudists are a small subset of humans, suggesting modesty is not that easy to dispense with. I think we can file this idea under N for 'non-starter'.

Additional possible rationales for not having a washing machine on the ISS: Adding a washing machine would place additional loads on the station's systems (water recycling, electricity), plus it'd be another non-science item to develop, operate and maintain.

Hobbes

Posted 2017-12-31T13:53:59.527

Reputation: 63 604

30Most climate zones of the Earth are either too hot and sunny or to cold for nudism during the whole year. But there are some first nations of New Guinea and Australia who lived some decades ago wearing very few clothing.Uwe 2017-12-31T20:06:24.677

8Not to mention protecting against bugs, softening the feeling of sharp objects (thorns, branches, etc.), and serving an aesthetic function.Tin Man 2018-01-01T13:36:41.060

Running around naked on Earth would not be cheaper if the risk of skin cancer is raised substantially by too much exposure to intensive sunlight. Clothing may be a protection against dangerous solar UV exposure when air temperature would not require wearing clothes.Uwe 2018-01-01T16:56:56.527

6Uhh, I'm naked when I'm home alone for a long periodOoker 2018-01-02T03:44:00.763

8"The breakeven point for a washing machine is missions of about 1 year." Couldn't it be said that the ISS' "mission" is 19 years (and counting)? It's not like the laundry machine will be consumed by the crew during their mission.Alexander 2018-01-02T08:10:08.277

See my point about frequent resupplies.Hobbes 2018-01-02T09:13:53.357

@Uwe Most of the clothing you wear in summer probably rates rather poorly at preventing UV exposure - a light white cotton shirt still easily lets through 10-30% UV (and that's counting only the parts of your body actually covered by the shirt - not your head, arms, neck, legs...). The impact of UV is anything but linear, so it's hard to judge how much of a difference this really makes (and you'd tend to keep to the shades more). Heavier (and specialized) clothes are better, but it's funny that people regularly use heavier sunscreens than the clothes they normally wear :PLuaan 2018-01-02T14:42:08.397

10"Nudists are a small subset of humans..." Within socially-constrained Western-European norms, yes - but that is only because of social norms. For the San or Aboriginal Australians, for a couple of examples, a different environment gives rise to a completely different set of social norms. Bare breasts are the most obvious example, where it is utterly unacceptable in normal Western life and barely (!) acceptable in liminal zones such as beaches, but most tribes in tropical/subtropical areas would never wear tops.Graham 2018-01-03T13:43:36.037

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"... suggesting modesty is not that easy to dispense with". Not true. Are you aware that for any longer activity, every astronaut wears an adult diaper, and of course will regularly have to use it? Lisa Nowak allegedly used them for a long drive. She denied it, but most analysts agreed this would not be unusual behaviour for astronauts who are inured to a complete lack of personal privacy and modesty. This is a simple example of your modesty preconceptions not being shared by people who have to live within these very practical constraints.

Graham 2018-01-03T13:48:57.697

3@Alexander but the ISS has cheap (in space terms) resupply options that (e.g.) a Mars mission wouldn't. Spare colthing also incorporates redundancy in an easy way; reliance on laundry equipment would have to take this into account.Chris H 2018-01-04T14:39:25.850

@Alexander It sounds like they don't currently reuse clothing across crew members: "The analysis indicates that disposable clothing is the least expensive selection in terms of ESM, unless using washed clothing from previous crews was considered acceptable and sizing issues could be overcome"npostavs 2018-01-07T15:52:46.070

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In addition to capture of contaminants, such as dead skin, hair, sweat, etc, and abrasion/cut protection, clothing forms a basic thermal layer that allows the human body to better regulate its internal temperature and perceived comfort level.

Every human has variations in temperature, and even in a perfectly controlled environment once you place two humans inside it you'll find it's only perfect for one or the other, and that this can change over time based on activity. They can adapt in a variety of ways, but the simplest is to wear clothing which conveniently serves several purposes in addition to easier thermal regulation.

Adam Davis

Posted 2017-12-31T13:53:59.527

Reputation: 906

4A human body has its own temperature regulation. Adaptation to an environment temperature some degrees colder or hoter is possible. Clothing expands the acceptable temperature range.Uwe 2018-01-01T16:45:50.943

@Uwe Correct, however clothing doesn't just extend the acceptable temperature range, it also reduces unnecessary energy expenditure in temperature ranges suitable for nudity. For instance when sleeping they would still choose to use a sleeping bag with insulation not just to avoid floating around but to reduce the amount of energy the body needs to maintain regulation. The same is true during the active part of their workday.Adam Davis 2018-01-01T18:41:53.313

5Saving body energy by clothing is important in space. If energy for temperature regulation is reduced, the astronaut would need less food and less precious payload weight is used by food.Uwe 2018-01-01T19:34:17.493

9@Uwe Spacecraft have trouble keeping cold, not hot. Even just the life support systems produce enough waste heat to keep the temperature far higher than comfortable (and the colder it is, the harder it is to keep cold - the ISS radiators need to be so big exactly because the temperature they need to maintain is so low). The temperature inside the ISS is kept to the comfort of the crew even now - it would be cheaper to have it higher. Add direct sunlight (very relevant on an interplanetary voyage) and you can get the air as hot as you want even with all the systems down.Luaan 2018-01-02T14:52:00.783

Different people have different comfortable ranges (as indicated by the photo in Hobbes's answer: one in a fleece, the other in shorts). Assuming you want to avoid sweating (contamination, loss of grip etc.) and shivering (waste of energy), clothing allows the same environment to suit more people. On top of this, the heat generated by a person varies with effort even on a shared task (e.g. one person reads instructions to another who's tightening bolts)Chris H 2018-01-04T14:44:18.493

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A picture might be worth a thousand words. Just imagine this situation without clothes:

Upside Down

Eric Duminil

Posted 2017-12-31T13:53:59.527

Reputation: 1 306

But what if the astronauts are all alone?Ooker 2018-01-02T15:54:55.553

@Ooker: I think this point is covered by the 3 other answers. I just wanted to add a visual argument.Eric Duminil 2018-01-02T16:49:21.843

31I don't understand your visual argument. Perhaps you'd like to explain further with words.R.M. 2018-01-02T17:34:25.620

3@R.M. I guess what he means is that there are social interacts in space too. In the picture both genders exist and there is a need to cover their bodiesOoker 2018-01-02T17:45:11.083

14@R.M. I'm looking at this example as tight spaces can be unpleasant without clothing... Guy in Black's groin area is inches from the woman's head/face. (looks like she is actually colliding with him shoulder to hip.) Regardless of your modesty level or how you feel about your co-workers, I don't imagine it would be fun to work with someone else's junk in your face.Mr.Mindor 2018-01-02T21:10:48.453

@Mr.Mindor: Exactly my point. Thanks!Eric Duminil 2018-01-02T21:23:34.740

3I don't understand. I prefer not having my face at someone else' backyard while working, with or without clothing. But even if there is a noticable difference, the premise to assume that a posture like in the image is The Natural Thing To Happen is wrong. If people offend stuffing their face at someone else' poophole, but only while naked, then such an image would not evoke in the first place. Also, in societies or groups where nudity is the norm, there's typically not poo, pee and stink everwhere. Furthermore, despite clothes, medieval cities and even modern people often enough stink like f**phresnel 2018-01-03T11:52:56.170

16Ignore the amount of people in the photo. Look at all the things to bash, scrape, snag, and otherwise catch against. Let your clothing take the impact; your skin is spared. It's the whole-body equivalent of a pair of work gloves for such an untidy environment.flith 2018-01-03T12:05:10.390

2Another important visual aspect of this photo: one person's in long pants, two are in shorts. Finding a temperature suitable for all three people might be tough.ceejayoz 2018-01-03T14:50:22.180

24The only thing I see in this photo is I can't work out if the woman is doing "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."Level River St 2018-01-03T19:25:00.507

@LevelRiverSt in the absence of gravity there is no up and down. However it is interesting that the woman is shown in the upside-down orientation in this image. The cameraman could have chosen any direction as can you by saving the image and rotating it in your image viewer. All rotations look unsettling to a gravity well dweller.KalleMP 2018-01-06T19:10:49.703

Astronauts might be selected by tolerance of, or obliviousness to, that which is giggity.

agc 2018-01-06T23:15:58.130

1@agc That would be an unnecessarily restrictive qualification. You'd rather have the people most capable in the math and science and physically fit before you'd want that factor to control who you can send.jpmc26 2018-01-07T00:41:42.757

@jpmc26, We agree that shouldn't be the sole qualification. Of course Glenn Quagmire, an ace pilot, by default has most of those qualities... and every known STD.agc 2018-01-07T04:29:13.397