A Speedo-NASA partnership after the 2004 Olympics resulted in a swimsuit worthy of world records
When it comes to speed, whether you’re racing in an Olympic swimming pool or flying in the air, drag is a force to reckon with. And NASA takes drag seriously: the Aeronautics Mission Directorate has for decades improved flight efficiency with its research in fluid dynamics.
For much of its aeronautics work, NASA uses wind tunnels, which give researchers a controlled environment to test materials and designs in conditions ranging from breezy to extreme. Though the physics of traveling through air and water share many properties, Langley Research Center’s Stephen Wilkinson—an aerodynamics researcher who works with wind tunnels—never expected that he would test swimsuits when he joined NASA more than 30 years ago.
Built for Speed
Shortly after the 2004 Olympics, Los Angeles-based SpeedoUSA asked NASA to help design a swimsuit with reduced drag. According to Stuart Isaac, at the time Speedo’s senior vice president of Team Sales and Sports Marketing, the idea of a Speedo-NASA partnership met with some skepticism. “People would look at us and say ‘this isn’t rocket science’ and we began to think, ‘well, actually, maybe it is.’”
A study conducted by Speedo’s Aqualab research and development unit determined that viscous drag, or the friction one experiences when moving through the water, accounts for 25 percent of the total retarding force on a swimmer—a major concern in a sport where every hundredth of a second counts. To test materials that would best reduce drag, the company partnered with NASA and sent Wilkinson nearly 60 different fabrics to analyze using a small-scale wind tunnel at Langley. Thanks in part to Wilkinson’s work, Speedo’s Aqualab soon after designed what became the most efficient swimsuit ever made: the LZR Racer.
The LZR Racer was the first fully bonded, full-body swimsuit with ultrasonically welded seams. The process of fusing seams ultrasonically rather than overlapping and stitching fabric helped reduce drag by 6 percent. NASA also demonstrated that a low-profile zipper, ultrasonically bonded into the fabric and hidden inside the suit, generated 8 percent less drag in wind tunnel tests than a standard zipper.
Similar in style to a wetsuit, the original LZR Racer covered either some or all of the torso and legs, depending on the preference of the swimmer or the event it was being used for. The greater the coverage over the body, the more drag could be reduced.
Within a year of its release in early 2008, the LZR Racer achieved worldwide fame as the most successful swimsuit ever made. Within a month, athletes wearing the suit broke 13 world records. And at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, 98 percent of medal-winners in swimming competitions won while wearing an LZR Racer. Out of the 25 world records broken at that Olympics, 23 were accomplished by swimmers wearing the suit.
When nearly 20 more world records fell later that year at another international competition, the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA)—the international governing body of aquatic sports recognized by the International Olympic Committee—decided that the suit conferred too much of an advantage and changed its regulations regarding swimsuits so that the LZR Racer could not be worn in future competitions.
Speedo, undaunted by the ban, has continued to innovate using the same technology developed in part by its collaboration with NASA. The company has since released a line LZR Racer suits that comply with FINA’s new regulations, which made their Olympic debut in London this year.
Speedo® and LZR Racer® are registered trademarks of Speedo Holdings B.V.
To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original article from Spinoff 2008.