Dreaming up new products for adidas makes for some great brainstorming sessions. When we team up to work on a new athlete insight or technology, we ask provocative, or even silly questions. What could we do to make it worse? What if it was made of gummy bears? How would it work without gravity? Such questions help to break our mindset and keep us open to new ideas and perspectives. Recently, we had the opportunity to think again and ask: “No really, what if we could work in space?”
In 2019 we got to answer that question thanks to a multi-year partnership with the International Space Station (ISS) US National Laboratory, managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, CASIS, to explore the boundaries of product innovation, human performance and sustainability.
As part of adidas and ISS US National Laboratory’s commitment to leading innovation within their respective fields, the partnership will pursue breakthroughs to improve future design and engineering for athletes on and off Earth.
Discard old habits and assumptions
In considering sportswear or experiments in space, the trick is to separate habits, normally valid assumptions, and expectations from background knowledge and experience. We want to see a challenge with fresh eyes, but with the knowledge base of an interdisciplinary team. Space and microgravity is an extreme example, but that sort of mindset is necessary for innovation.
The laboratory conditions on the International Space Station are completely unique and give an opportunity to conduct tests that would be impossible on Earth. The mission of the International Space Station US National Laboratory is undertaking “science in space for the benefit of people on Earth” and, with that in mind, we chose to pursue an engineering experiment that could support our research and development of products for athletes on the ground.
Sending soccer balls to space
We created a soccer ball project for our first space-based experiment primarily because our strong technical foundation allows us to design good scientific studies and interpret and implement the findings. Furthermore, the ball is one of adidas’ most impactful products. It is at the center of the most-watched event and the most-played sport and it connects people across cultural and geographic boundaries. Soccer can unite and form communities, and inspire confidence, and provide feelings of accomplishment. When we get the opportunity to contribute to such a life-changing phenomenon, we’re motivated to keep pushing the limits to make the best ball in the world (or solar system).
The scientific goals
The goal of the experiments was to isolate the air-ball aerodynamic interaction in a way that is not normally possible. On Earth, we can observe and measure a soccer ball when it is either airborne for a short time moving quickly (i.e. human or robot-kicked), or rigidly mounted in a wind tunnel. In space, the freely suspended ball in microgravity gives us datapoints we simply cannot get on Earth.
Inside ISS, we conducted two series of tests in flowing and stationary air using a standard 32 panel ball, a current 2019 Nativo Questra, and an experimental prototype. We measured the motion and spin to quantify the interaction between the air and the ball. Thanks to the excellent work and persistence of the crew members on the space station, the experiments worked as planned. Not only did we gather data to supplement and anchor our ground-based testing, we also observed something surprising – a bi-stable spin-axis flip (Dzhanibekov effect), which has opened a new path of investigation.
Partners that push boundaries
In addition to the scientific learnings for soccer ball development, we are also learning from the experience of working with the space industry. When we brought our wild ideas to the ISS US National Lab, they were eager to learn about our work so we could quickly find the best way to collaborate.
Our implementation partner was NanoRacks, and they helped translate our experimental design to something practical for ISS. They design permanent and experiment-specific hardware for ISS so they know space inside and out. We’re not a space company, and this was a great example of the benefits in partnering with and learning from experts in other industries.
Although space exploration and the sportswear industry seem very far apart, we were all surprised by the topics we have in common and the learnings we can take from each other. For example, we see a trend of decreasing participation in sport among young girls as they progress through school, and NASA observes a similar trend with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) topics. How might we work together to keep kids active and learning?
Sustainability is another shared high-priority topic. At adidas, we’re changing our materials, and developing products that are “made to be re-made”.
Partnering with experts in other industries can help us think differently about our work and provide unique opportunities for new scientific insights that support the creation of exciting new products for our users. In this regard, not even the sky is the limit.