By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Fifty years to the day since Apollo 11 launched, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is back on display, to be exhibited at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., NPR reported. The restoration of the spacesuit took four years and cost $700,000. How was it originally created, though?
Apollo 11, the first space mission to put a man on the moon, launched on July 16, 1969—50 years ago today. Eight days later, 600 million people watched as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon’s surface, with the iconic declaration that it was “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin followed behind him on the same mission. Today, the spacesuit Armstrong wore went back on display after a four-year restoration and preservation effort that, according to the NPR article, cost $700,000. Not only is the outfit a piece of world history, but it’s also a marvel of design.
Inventing the Suit
In 1965, NASA held a contest to design functional spacesuits for astronauts. “The Mercury astronauts of the early 1960s had basically worn modified high-altitude flight suits done up in silver to give them a futuristic appearance,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. “But the Mercury astronauts had been stationary, strapped into their seats. Something dramatically more functional was needed to walk and work on the moon.”
The winner of the NASA contest was the International Latex Corporation (ILC), also known as Playtex, who designed and manufactured ladies’ underwear. “ILC engineers and textile designers won because they knew a lot about flexibility, layering, and movement,” Dr. Kurin said. “The company developed a soft suit composed of some 26 layers of synthetic materials that could withstand pressurization, protect the astronauts, retard fire, and also provide the flexibility needed for the mission.”
According to Dr. Kurin, ILC hand-tailored each suit per each astronaut, and the spacesuits worked exceptionally well. “Both Armstrong and Aldrin loped hundreds of yards around their moon base in the low gravity with no problem,” he said. The astronauts wielded geological hammers, set up equipment, and used a camera, among other tasks, with ease.
The Spacesuit’s Equipment
The Apollo 11 spacesuit wasn’t just comfortable and flexible—it was also laden with over 130 lbs. of life-saving equipment. “It had a liquid-circulating, temperature-modulating undergarment closest to the skin,” Dr. Kurin said. “That was fitted with rubber and neoprene to allow flexibility in arm, knee, and hip joints, with a system of nylon tunneling and steel cables to prevent ballooning from pressurization.”
According to Dr. Kurin, two sets of zippers held the suit closed, one of which ran from the back of the neck straight down along the crotch and up to the front of the neck. The suit’s torso also had two sets of connectors for life-support hoses, with a blue hose for good air and a red hose for bad air. “The pressure bubble helmet connected to the suit with a neck ring and had a comfort pad in the back that linked it to the airflow system,” he said, adding that the main helmet was large enough and fastened tightly enough that the astronauts could turn their heads and necks but not the helmet itself. “On the moon’s surface, the astronauts donned an overhelmet, which had two visors—an outer one for protection from micrometeorites and ultraviolet light and a 24-karat-gold-coated one that reduced the light entering the helmet to prevent overheating.”
The spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon had to be functional in practical and life-saving ways. They required flexibility, comfort, heat reduction, and maneuverability. They had to be flame-retardant and be able to withstand pressurization without ballooning, while protecting the astronauts from fast-flying space debris. Obviously, the suits needed to be airtight and able to supply oxygen. Additionally, the spacesuits needed to have protective outer helmets to shield them from two kinds of light and to withstand micrometeorite impacts. Aside from the landmark occasion for their use, the Apollo 11 spacesuits were a wonder of their own.
Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. He holds a B.A. in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo—The State University of New York. He earned both his M.A. and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.