These socks are out of this world — literally

Penny Garner shows Poulsbo Elementary School student Rebecca Kofol the technique for knitting socks May 16, during the Knitting Club meeting after school. Garner is knitting socks for astronauts preparing for a mission to the International Space Station in 2014.                                                    - Kipp Robertson / Herald
Penny Garner shows Poulsbo Elementary School student Rebecca Kofol the technique for knitting socks May 16, during the Knitting Club meeting after school. Garner is knitting socks for astronauts preparing for a mission to the International Space Station in 2014.
— image credit: Kipp Robertson / Herald

POULSBO — When the crew of Expedition 40/41 launches to the International Space Station in 2014, some of the astronauts will have cozy socks to wear once they arrive.

Penny Garner has made it her mission to knit socks for any interested member of the space station crew.

“It’s just a little bit of home,” said Samuel Ortega, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center systems engineer in Huntsville, Ala. “More connectivity than standard white crew socks.”

Garner isn’t the only one with a hand in the project. Since she began knitting the socks earlier in the year, she has given anyone interested the chance to knit a few stitches. Each person contributing has the opportunity to write their name and hometown on a list on her iPad. Once a pair of socks is finished, a card with a list of names of people who stitched each pair of socks is shipped with them.

“My husband says I’m on a crusade,” Garner said.

Because there are about 30,000 stitches on a sock, the project has given many people the opportunity to participate. Each person gets to knit about five stitches.  People get excited at the idea of having something they worked on, on the space station, Garner said.

“I’ve never had anyone say no,” she said. “People are excited and jazzed about it.”

Along with offering random people the chance to stitch, Garner has also made special appearances, such as to the Poulsbo Elementary Knitting Club May 16 where six students had the chance to participate. Sitting around a conference table, Poulsbo students Joslin Gilchrist, Rebecca Kofol, Oliver Machen, Joseph Munoz, Payton Stewart and Grace Villanueva, along with club adviser Debbie Beggs and assistant Rebecca Beggs, were given the opportunity to add stitches.

One student said “it was kind of weird” to knit socks for an astronaut. Another student said “it’s cool.”

The socks, knit custom for the astronaut, are either cotton with 2 percent Lycra, or 100 percent wool. Color is customized to individual taste.

Socks, along with all clothing when in orbit, need to meet specifications and approval. Acrylic, for example, cannot be used, because it burns too easily in a 100 percent oxygen environment, such as in a spacesuit.

Astronauts wear the same socks that can be purchased at a clothing store, Ortega said. Booties with leather bottoms may also be worn. Shoes are not worn.

While orbiting Earth and experiencing weightlessness, astronauts wear out the tops of their socks while stabilizing themselves. There are foot holders placed throughout the space station to keep astronauts in place. The foot holders “are always wearing out the top of their sock,” Ortega said.

The project began during the NASA Social at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. in early May. Active NASA social media users are invited to the event to spectate the Centennial Challenges Program and visit with space enthusiasts and NASA officials, and go on tours. Ortega, who manages the program, is also a knitter. After hearing Garner’s ideas and receiving positive feedback on Facebook and Twitter, the project was launched.

“It really is a neat project,” Ortega said.

The first pair of socks was knit for Gregory Reid Wiseman — an American astronaut and naval aviator — after he posted a photo of his socks as he packed. Wiseman was selected in June 2009 and qualified as an astronaut in 2011. He is training for his first spaceflight as part of the Expedition 40/41 crew, which is tentatively scheduled for May 2014.

Wiseman received his first pair of red, white, and blue socks May 16. Wiseman tweeted his excitement.

“Houston, we’ve got socks! Next stop … International Space Station,” Wiseman tweeted.

Wiseman is not the only one who can expect some comfy socks in orbit.

Butch Wilmore, commander of Expedition 42 scheduled to launch next year, jumped at the opportunity for some homemade footwear. A graduate of Tennessee Tech University and Navy enlistee, he can expect to see a pair of socks in purple and gold, and navy blue.

As more astronauts hear about the project, many through word-of-mouth, Ortega expects more sock orders for Garner.

“She’ll probably have more than she wants,” Ortega joked.

According to Beggs, Garner has knitted about 10 pairs of socks now.

Though they will be enjoyed in space, the handmade socks will mostly likely not return to Earth. The socks will be placed with garbage, and burned up upon reentry.


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