Spacesuit Worn By Neil Armstrong Continues To Inspire

Jul 14, 2019
Originally published on July 17, 2019 2:28 pm
Copyright 2019 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Spacesuit design has come a long way in the 50 years since Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, yet Armstrong's iconic apparel continues to capture the imagination and influence what astronauts are wearing in space today. Chloe Veltman from member station KQED reports.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: A 1970 NASA documentary captures the voices of the seamstresses who painstakingly sewed together the spacesuit that put the first man on the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "APOLLO MOON SUIT: DEMONSTRATION OF FUNCTIONING AND MANUFACTURING")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think I'd like to go into space, and I'd like to wear our own suit that we make. I think I can depend on it.

VELTMAN: Neil Armstrong's spacesuit with its white marshmallow-like coveralls and gold-fronted fishbowl-shaped helmet has been slowly deteriorating in the 50 years since it was made, says Smithsonian's spacesuit curator Cathleen Lewis.

CATHLEEN LEWIS: The materials from which the suit was made were not expected to last much longer than the Apollo mission itself.

VELTMAN: But its near-mythic status has persisted in the intervening decades.

TV personality Adam Savage commissioned a reproduction of Armstrong's suit. Here he is talking about it on the popular science and technology website Tested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SAVAGE: I am standing next to the ur-spacesuit (ph), the OG. This is what my brain thinks of when I think of spacesuit.

VELTMAN: The Apollo 11 suit is also one of the most reproduced images in all of photographic history, and its bulky contours have been riffed on countless times in pop culture. Just think of movies like "The Toy Story" franchise...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOY STORY")

TIM ALLEN: (As Buzz Lightyear) Buzz Lightyear to Star Command. Come in, Star Command.

VELTMAN: The Smithsonian's Cathleen Lewis says Armstrong's spacesuit was essential to the success of the Apollo 11 mission.

LEWIS: Without that suit, Neil Armstrong could not have made that one small step for man and stepped down out of the lunar module.

VELTMAN: That's because the suit itself represents such a giant leap in engineering and design, says Nicholas De Monchaux. He's a professor of architecture design and new media at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of the book "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo."

NICHOLAS DE MONCHAUX: The Apollo suit, for the very first time, had to be a suit in which you could literally walk around, bend over, do all kinds of work on the surface of the moon.

VELTMAN: De Monchaux says the Apollo suit was safer, more durable and allowed greater mobility than its predecessors in the harsh zero-gravity conditions of space.

DE MONCHAUX: The suit had 21 different layers of fabric literally layered together like the human skin.

VELTMAN: At the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, Calif., Astronomer Gerald McKeegan shows me samples of some of these layers.

GERALD MCKEEGAN: This is what the interior of it looks like.

VELTMAN: The materials are crinkly and super light. They look like flimsy sheets of silver tin foil. McKeegan tells me they're actually made of aluminum coated mylar - a type of plastic film which acts as a barrier against heat.

MCKEEGAN: So these were extremely efficient at keeping the astronauts cool inside. It could be 200 degrees on the outside and 75 degrees on the inside.

VELTMAN: Spacesuits today still more or less look the same from the outside as they did in 1969. And they used some similar technologies, like layers that regulate body temperature. But they've also evolved a great deal since the first moon landing. Neil Armstrong's was a soft-shelled, custom-tailored one-piece affair.

NASA's spacesuit engineer Amy Ross says today's suits, which have been in place since the start of the shuttle program, come with a hard upper torso and in different sized modular parts so anyone can wear them no matter their size or gender.

AMY ROSS: I just build small, medium, large and extra large and make sure that all the different folks, male or female, who might be getting the suits in those sizes can do their job in that size.

VELTMAN: Ross also says today's fabrics have changed. For example, they include natural fibers once thought of as too flammable. She says NASA has upped its metal game too.

ROSS: We used to be focused on aluminum, then stainless steel. And now we're trying to use more titanium. It's stronger. It's lighter.

VELTMAN: And NASA is also working on giving the spacewalking astronauts more autonomy and access to information such as navigation.

ROSS: And, unfortunately, it’s not as easy as, you know, velcroing your cell phone to your helmet (laughter).

VELTMAN: The commercial space programs of companies like Boeing and Space X are now taking the space suit in a more fashionable direction to the delight of the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Definitely a much more sleeker design.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I love it. I honestly thought it was, like, a new Power Ranger.

VELTMAN: That was the CBS TV station WCCO in Minnesota. But these efforts have, so far, been mostly focused on suits that can only be used inside spacecraft. They couldn't withstand the hazards outside - the extreme temperatures and flying debris that working astronauts encounter when they step out into the void of deep space. For now, bulky, white coveralls, helmets and backpacks, really refined versions of the Apollo suit, are what's needed to kick up moon dust once again.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.