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Michael Phelps and Olympic Swimmers Shattering Records in NASA-Tested Suit

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Michael Phelps Day 9 of 2008 Olympics - Swimmer Michael Phelps Broke Records at 2008 Olympics

Michael Phelps Day 9 of 2008 Olympics

Jeff Gross / Getty Images
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China has seen an incredible amount of swimming world records shattered. Mostly, the swimmers were wearing a swimsuit made of fabric tested at NASA. Among the Olympic gold medalists wearing Speedo's LZR Racer are Americans Michael Phelps (who has now won more Olympic gold medals than any athlete in the modern era) and Natalie Coughlin.

Both Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin were helpful in the development of the skin-tight body suits as was aerospace engineer Steve Wilkinson from NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. While he's not really a swimmer himself, Wilkinson is very enthusiastic about this summer's Olympics. "I'm paying very close attention to the swimmers' times," said Wilkinson. "I'm amazed that so many athletes are wearing a fabric I tested in a laboratory in Hampton, VA."

Dozens of swimsuit fabrics have been tested in NASA Langley's 7- by 11-Inch Low Speed Wind Tunnel. "This is a fundamental research facility," said Wilkinson. "What we look at are concepts for reducing drag on otherwise smooth surfaces. This is more directed toward fundamental physics, the interactions between the flow and the surface."

Wilkinson says it's no different than reducing drag for planes, helping them fly more efficiently. Reducing drag helps swimmers go faster. Previous studies indicated that viscous drag or skin friction was almost one-third of the total restraining force on a swimmer. Wind tunnel tests measure the drag on the surface of the fabrics.

Warnaco Inc., the US licensee of the Speedo swimwear brand, approached NASA Langley to test fabric samples, since NASA Langley has researched drag reduction for aircraft and even boats for decades.

"We evaluated the surface roughness effects of nearly 60 fabrics or patterns in one of our small low speed wind tunnels," said Wilkinson. "We were assessing which fabrics and weaves had the lowest drag. The tests have generally shown the smoother the fabric, the lower the drag.

"The fabric comes in the form of fabric tubes, a small diameter fabric tube," Wilkinson added. "We pull that over our smooth flat model, which is an aluminum plate underneath. We prepare the edges so they're straight and square with no protruding corners or edges to interfere with the drag on the surface."

After running the fabric through its paces, Wilkinson records the data and then sends it on to Speedo researchers. Speedo's research and development team, Aqualab, takes the results and uses them to help create advanced "space-age" swimsuit designs.

Wilkinson says he never expected that he would test swimsuit fabric when he started at NASA 30 years ago. He adds he gets a lot of chuckles from his colleagues. As he's watching Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin at the Olympics, knowing that he played a small part in swimming history, Wilkinson may be having the last laugh.

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