Leeds’ company comes up with space suit designed to dish out hugs from Earth

Jon Spooner
Jon Spooner
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ASTRONAUTS working in deep space could soon be getting a hug from loved ones – thanks to a Leeds theatre company’s pioneering work.

Members of Unlimited Theatre, which is based at West Yorkshire Playhouse, have helped develop award-winning internet connected clothing for astronauts working on the International Space Station.

The special suit, which is sewn with conductive thread, has features including a 3D printer in the pocket to deliver tools and gifts directly to the astronauts, and a ‘wearable hug’ that squeezes the astronaut’s shoulders when a family member sends a command from Earth.

The idea came to life when members of Unlimited Theatre took part in NASA’s global Space Apps Challenge at the Met Office’s site in Exeter.

Members of the theatre group worked with technologists, software developers, fashion design students from Exeter College and the astronaut Tim Peake.

The project won ‘Best Mission Concept’ and ‘People’s Choice’ awards in the UK event and was selected from 671 global entries to go through to the final judging phase by NASA executive. It was ultimately named overall global winner of the Best Mission Concept category.

Based in Leeds since 1997, Unlimited is a collaboration between artists Clare Duffy, Jon Spooner and Chris Thorpe. The company specialises in creating innovative new ways of telling stories, particularly in collaboration with scientists.

In 2010, members of the Unlimited Theatre Company set up the Unlimited Space Agency with a mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers.

One of the company’s founders Jon Spooner, 40, came up with the idea for the suit and worked with the team to help design it.

Mr Spooner said: “A scientist would not have come up with the idea of a wearable hug, that was one of the fashion students ideas. It is all about a whole team of people coming together and sharing ownership. My job was to provide leadership.

“We specialise in collaborating with scientists and we communicate their research in clear an accessible ways. It is all about explaning to kids that if they want to be involved with cool projects, then science is a good thing to be studying.

“It is really about how we use emerging technologies and what the relationship is between art an science. A lot of people assume that only scientists can do useful stuff and that is not right. Its about working in collaboration with people.

“No one person can achieve anything on their own. Its all about exploration and ideas.”

“Executives at NASA can see a practical use for it and they can see it is a really cool way of showing how that technology works.”

Mr Spooner added: “We’re delighted to have won. While we’re proud leaders of the project, it was a truly collaborative effort and is further evidence of the power of art, play and storytelling to inspire engagement with science. The support we received in particular from the Met Office and the Faculty of Arts & Design at Exeter College was inspirational.”

British and European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake, who will fly to the International Space Station in 2015, said: “The Unlimited Space Agency is great. Their approach to inspiring children about science is rigorous, fun and it works. I’m proud to serve with them on their mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers.”

The Unlimited Space Agency will develop the prototype space suit for Mr Peake to hopefully wear on the International Space Station.

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