Along with the American flag that he planted in the moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong’s space suit is emblematic of what until then had been an unimaginable sense of wonder.
In line with the entire Apollo 11 mission, the space suits required an interdisciplinary effort uniting engineers, seamstresses and various contractors to ensure the suits would be safe, flexible and pressurized. Whether climbing a ladder, walking on the moon’s surface or working with their hands, the astronauts needed a different degree of dexterity on the extraterrestrial surface. Gloves, for example, needed to shield them from space dust, micro-meteorites and radiation. The Apollo suits were the only items that set foot on the moon and were returned to earth.
Each of the Apollo 11 astronauts had to travel to ILC Dover’s headquarters in Delaware for fittings for their customized space suits. There, engineers and sewers spent countless hours perfecting the suits, which required 21 layers of fabrics, which were taped and bonded layer over layer and then inserted into the suits’ outer layers. Before the mission, the sewers routinely worked 10 to 12 hours a day — seven days a week. Many of those hours were spent at “Sweet Sue” and “Big Mo,” two giant sewing machines with custom-built oversize arms.
“Hundreds” worked on the space suits for the Apollo 11, and there was much more to it than the iconic white suit that so many associate with the lunar landing, according to former ILC Dover seamstress Lillie Elliott, who worked on the project. She said, “You did not only have the white suit that everybody has seen. The white suit was made up of so many plies of material. A blue suit was underneath it made with nylon and all kinds of rubber. Then you had another lightweight suit that was like a liner. There was more than one suit. All they say is ‘suit.’ They wore all of them at the same time. That’s why it was so big and bulky.”
Armstrong’s Apollo 11 space suit is on display for the first time in 13 years in Washington,. D.C., following extensive conservation funded by a Kickstarter campaign led by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. This time the helmet and gloves are attached to the suit, which is rigged up to create an internal air flow. Cathleen Lewis, a curator in the museum’s space history department, explained, “The textiles that were used were known to last for a finite period of time. In fact, when they made space suits for the Apollo program, they knew they only had a working life of six months, due to the rubbers that they used to create the bladder layer, a mix of synthetic and natural rubbers. Later in the program — before they found an additive — they would have to swap out that bladder layer right prior to flight, if there was some sort of delay. They knew it wouldn’t take well.”
The Apollo 11 space suits were made through different contractors with ILC Dover making the pressurized garment and Hamilton Standard providing the life support backpack, and handling the integration of systems and testing. There were other subcontractors such as AirLock, which made all of the metal components for the space suits including anodized aluminum and the helmet. AirLock continues to make certain space suit components for the International Space Station, Lewis said. Smaller companies contributed communication devices, the visor and other elements for the Apollo 11.
ILC Industries called on a variety of fabrics and fiber companies, while developing the space suits. Some of the companies on that roster were Owens Corning Fiberglass, which supplied the Beta fiberglass fabric, Kendall served up the handwoven Dacron and J.P. Steven manufactured the nylon and cotton liners. Other resources included DuPont, which provided the Kapton polymide film and Mylar polyester film that was used for the insulation designed to protect the astronauts from possible meteoroids and temperature extremes on the lunar surface.
Lewis said, “When we look at a space suit traditionally, we think of it as work clothes. It’s not. It is a personalized form-fitting spacecraft. It is a very complex, highly technical functional machine that allows astronauts to explore another world. Where the gloves were in 1969 is very far from where they are right now. Yet astronauts still complain about gloves — they lose fingernails trying to operate with gloves. They still remain uncomfortable.”
Despite their bulbous exterior, the Apollo space suits were lighter than they appeared with each weighing between 60 pounds and 80 pounds depending on the astronaut’s physique. “The real burden was the life support, the pressurized oxygen, the water supply and the communications device on the backpack. All told, the suit came in about 200 pounds. When they were wearing those suits on the surface of the moon, that weight would have been one-sixth of what it was here on earth,” Lewis said. “But the mass remains the same and the astronauts still need to maintain control over that mass. They have to be very cautious, when moving around.”
Changes in design requirements and components happened after NASA stipulated that custom-made suits were no longer permissible. “They wanted the suits to become modular and to fit a wide range of astronauts. The suits themselves and the components are designed to last much longer,” Lewis said, adding that urethane has proven to be more durable than rubber for the bladder layer, and easier to clean and maintain. There also has been a move away from compression zippers.
As an indication of the progression in design, the gloves that are used for the current EVA space suit have seen six iterations of design so far and that competition continues, according to Lewis. The suits used for the ISS weigh between 300 pounds and 400 pounds. Lewis explained, “They are not designed for walking on the surface of another world. The astronauts really only use their legs to anchor themselves. They don’t have the flexibility in the lower torso and the lower body that the Apollo suits had. Gloves are very difficult to design for space suits. The gloves are operating under pressure and the astronauts require a degree of manual dexterity to be able to use his or her fingers in a tactile self.”
Spanning from 1963 to 1972, the Apollo program was set up so that humans could land on the moon and return safely back to earth. During the Apollo program, each seat required that multiple suits were made, Lewis said. Each member of the flight crew would have a training suit, a flight suit and a back-up suit. The back-up crew would each have a training suit and a back-up suit, according to Lewis. At the onset of the program, the space suits ran about $200,000 each. When later missions called for more complicated tasks such as driving the Lunar Roving Vehicle, the suits became more advanced and also costlier — approaching nearly $500,000 a piece. Toward the end of the program, the suits became more economical with some astronauts training in suits that had been made for others. “So there wasn’t that strict five-suits-per-astronaut-per-seat by Apollo 17 and certainly not by Skylab,” Lewis said.
The current extravehicular activity suit, or EVA, is difficult to price, because it is modular and ILC Dover provides individual components, said Lewis, who estimated the cost to be from $3 million to $5 million. Unlike the Apollo 11 space suits that had a six-month shelf life, the current ones are designed to be reusable and adjustable since part of the astronaut’s training involves learning how to adjust the suit to fit him or herself, she said.
Space-related apparel continues to appeal to the general public. NASA has an online store for its signature men’s, women’s and children’s apparel. A $65 men’s Apollo 11 flight jacket, a $75 women’s NASA Eddie Bauer hoodie and the $25 NASA legacy baseball cap are among the options, which are also offered at the NASA Exchange at the Johnson Space Center. Online shoppers can land free shipping for orders upward of $35. There are also $5 Astronaut strawberries for more experimental shoppers. Asos, Old Navy, Urban Outfitters and Century 21 are some of the other retailers selling NASA apparel. Revo, which lined up astronaut Pete Conrad as its first brand ambassador in 1988, recently released limited-edition Moonwalker sunglasses. Building on its 10-year partnership with NASA, Alpha Industries has introduced a collection that celebrates America’s history of space travel. And for last year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Burton suited up the U.S. snowboarding team with space suit-inspired uniforms.
Noting how the Kickstarter campaign’s initial goal of $500,000 was met in less than a week, and then consumer-driven funding increased to $719,000, Lewis attributed some of that interest to the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes view of the museum and a “front-row seat,” as the project progressed with e-mailed updates.
Elliott was only a teenager when she started her 11-year run at ILC Dover in 1965. Four years later she was one of the Research & Engineering employees, who worked on the Apollo 11 space suits. Her friend, Anna Lee Minner, made the patterns based on the astronauts’ measurements. The astronauts visited the Dover, Del., offices to ensure that everything was alright with their space suits, she said. “They put me in a cutting room, and you had to get a pattern that was under lock and key. You would put your material down on the table and then call for inspection to make sure that you had the right kind of material. The inspector would come over to check it, and then stamp it. Then you would put the pattern down. If the material was nylon, you did not cut it with a pair of scissors. You would use a hot knife so that it would sear the edges and not unravel,” she said. “We were all sewers but if they needed someone to cut, then you went into the cutting room. If they needed another person who could sew, then you were brought out and told what to do. You were not selected. You were just put in there.”
Early on she did not grasp the magnitude of the NASA project. “Being right out of high school, I did not understand. This was a job to me. I knew that as long as I did what I was supposed to, did it right and didn’t give them any flak, I had a job. But as the time got closer to them taking off and going to the moon, you thought, ‘OK, this is really something,’” she said.
Every iota of the development of the space suits required evaluations. “You had so many inspectors. You had inspectors from ILC Dover, inspectors from the government, and we had to pass all of those inspections to get that suit going. Oh my goodness — you had inspections for thread. Every time you did something on the suit, you had to have it inspected. You couldn’t be off by a quarter of an inch,” Elliott said.
During their ILC Dover visits for fittings, the astronauts would also “give the girls a little talk,” Elliott recalled. “They would stop production and they would tell us how much they appreciated everything that we were doing.”
She and a few coworkers watched the landing together at one of their homes. Elliott said of that 1969 viewing, “You looked at it and said, ‘Oh my God.’ We hoped that everything went together right. We thought, ‘This product that this person is wearing has to keep him safe to get to the moon and to get back.’ We just prayed that everything went well, and it did,” said Elliott, adding that she was not relieved until the crew had returned to earth.”
The Singer Co. also held an important position among the family of aerospace component manufacturers. Hundreds of items ranging from guidance computers to explosives and ground support equipment were supplied by Singer subsidiaries for the Apollo program. One of its subsidiaries, Strong Electric Co., provided the battery of Xenon bulb searchlights that illuminated the launch site during liftoff. Another one, the Vapor Corp., provided thermostats used for guidance systems and the pressure and vacuum relief valves on the ground storage tanks.
On July 23, 1969, WWD wrote about the post-landing decontaminating and how the three astronauts “appeared to be in better shape than earthmen.” There was analysis of what Armstrong and Aldrin could do on earth compared to the moon. Armstrong only had to be told once “to take it easy” — when his heart rate raced to 160 beats per minute, according to the medical director Charles Berry. But a month later the Space Elite was beset with dissension within and without. WWD reported how the nation was starting to question the $500 million tab for each test-pilot landing on the moon.
As was the case with the liftoff and lunar landing, U.S. department stores and specialty stores used TVs to reel in shopper. Some retailers placed TVs in a number of departments to attract new customers. San Francisco impresario Enrico Banducci threw a “Splash Party” for such guests as socialite Charlotte Maillard, author-producer Fred Goerner, then Saks Fifth Avenue president James Ludwig and composer Arthur Fiedler. While retailers bemoaned the unexpected drop in sales due to the splash down and the launch, others found reason to celebrate. The $24 billion lunar investment also fueled an assortment of fashion trends and even airline attire. Months after the historic event designer David Crystal introduced navy space suit pants for Eastern Airlines’ stewardesses. Pierre Cardin was an early booster of Space Age fashion, having envisioned intergalactic-appropriate attire before the Apollo 11 mission. He was so intrigued that in October 1969 he visited NASA and became the first civilian to try on one of the crew’s space suits. (Visitors to the designer’s newly opened “Future Fashion” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum can see the end results.) A slew of other designers have taken to aerospace-inspired ideas — Donatella Versace, Heron Preston, Joe Boxer’s Nick Graham and more recently RVDK/Ronald van der Kemp.
Even American Olympic snowboarders were early adapters to the trend at last year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang. A 2017 trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum inspired Burton’s Greg Dacyshyn, who handled the design for the athletes. He explained at that time, “Everyone loves a space suit, but also space suits are built to function, right? There can be no failure. They are the ultimate in form follows function as far as the design of a garment goes.”
Elliott and a few of her fellow workers from ILC Dover traveled to Washington, D.C., to see Armstrong’s suit before it was reinstalled at the National Air and Space Museum. “It was amazing to see it there. But we couldn’t touch it because they were still doing things to it. There was a little bit of moon dust on the knee,” she said.
“Many people really didn’t have an idea about what goes on beyond the front side of the museum,” Lewis said. “They were very curious to find out, this is Neil Armstrong’s space suit. Yes, it is an icon. Yes, it’s at the Smithsonian, but it doesn’t just stand there. It’s doing something else that we can’t control. And here are people trying to preserve it, while keeping it in the public eye. That caught people’s attention. There is museum work behind the scenes. There is research still to be done and here’s a way for us to get a front-row seat.”
Reached back in her Delaware home on Wednesday, Elliott said of her own plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary, “I’m probably going to be right here watching.”