Of Little Details And Lunar Dust: Preserving Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Spacesuit

Jul 11, 2019
Originally published on July 16, 2019 10:39 am

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When astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon 50 years ago, it was a giant leap for functional fashion.

The spacesuit he wore was an unprecedented blend of technology and tailoring.

"The suit itself is an engineering marvel," says Malcolm Collum, the chief conservator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "Every single thing on here is a specific function. It is engineered to the last little detail."

Take the metal fittings that connect the helmet, air tubes and gloves. They're brightly colored — for example, vivid red metal for the right glove, neon blue for the left. Patriotic, yes, but also exceptionally functional. That's because NASA wanted to make sure that in all of the excitement of landing on the moon, Armstrong was able to easily connect his gear.

The spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago. Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon on July 16, 1969, and Armstrong took his famed "giant leap" five days later.
Claire Harbage / NPR

And that attention to detail is evident from helmet to toe. The stitching throughout is meticulous — much of it done by hand in 1969. The suit had to be tough, flexible and airtight. Armstrong's life depended on a finely guided needle and thread.

But decades of being on display throughout the country took a toll. In 2006, Smithsonian technicians noticed Armstrong's spacesuit was showing signs of age. So they removed it from the Air and Space Museum in Washington, moved it to a storage facility and laid it out in a drawer.

Collum and his team of technicians have had the job of getting Armstrong's spacesuit standing tall and back on public view again.

We're really trying to say that what the visitors are seeing here is exactly what they saw back in 1969. - Malcolm Collum, chief conservator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

It's been a four-year, $700,000 preservation effort. Collum and his team at the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center, a Smithsonian outpost a few miles outside of Washington, cleaned and repaired the inside and outside of the spacesuit, then fitted it to a specially designed mannequin and placed it in a temperature-controlled case. The suit goes back on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 16, the day 50 years ago that Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon.

The team's job, Collum says, has been more about conservation than restoration. The Smithsonian is not trying to make the spacesuit as pristine as the day it was made.

The spacesuit was engineered to help Neil Armstrong easily connect his equipment. The suit's metal fittings are brightly colored so that even in the excitement of the moon landing, Armstrong could attach his helmet, air tubes and gloves.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"We're not removing any original material. We're not replacing any materials that might be now deteriorated or missing," he says. "We're really trying to say that what the visitors are seeing here is exactly what they saw back in 1969."

For the most part, the outside of the suit has held up pretty well. There were a few rips and tears on fabric and some were fixed. Much of the deterioration has taken place on the inside.

Malcolm Collum, the chief conservator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Collum led the team of technicians in charge of preserving the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The spacesuit is made of 21 layers of fabric, rubber, metal and fiberglass. It was made to be airtight and tough enough to prevent punctures from micrometeorites, which are tiny particles of dust hurtling through space at incredible speeds. Collum says time is now its biggest threat.

"A lot of these materials were designed with the life expectancy of about six months," he says. "And after that, NASA didn't care because they knew the suit was not going to be reused again. Here we are 50 years later trying to make sure that these materials last for the next several generations."

Before technicians got to work, they did extensive X-rays and 3D scanning of the spacesuit. It allowed them to assess what needed to be done to preserve it. They concluded that the internal rubber and plastic parts had begun to crumble because of a buildup of harmful vapors. There was not much that could be done to repair the damage, but technicians were able to slow the deterioration by creating a specially designed mannequin that channels a constant stream of fresh air throughout the suit.

The mannequin that now wears the suit is built to preserve its internal rubber and plastic parts.

An earlier version of the mannequin that holds the suit in place. The mannequin is built to preserve the suit's internal rubber and plastic parts. It gives structural support and also pipes fresh air to protect against buildup of harmful vapors.
Claire Harbage / NPR

"Like all materials, they eventually degrade, and plastics and rubbers do a little faster than other materials. And so with that in mind, we've devised the mannequin so it not only provides structural support but it's also a fresh-air delivery system," he says. "So any sort of harmful vapors that the suit materials off-gas will be eventually pushed out of the suit and will not be allowed to sort of fester in there and cause additional damage."

The suit is now positioned with the left leg slightly forward — as if it were about to take that first small step for man. The pose makes the suit feel alive, Collum says.

"Oftentimes you see spacesuits or flight suits or any kind of uniform just sort of standing there looking straightforward, arms to their sides, just anonymous, featureless," he says. "But the suit really has a vibrance to it, a real presence."

The thighs, knees and boots of the spacesuit are stained with lunar dust.
Claire Harbage / NPR

And the suit still looks like it's been to the moon and back. As your eyes scan down — below the red metal ring where the helmet screws on, below the American flag on the shoulder, below the eagle on the Apollo 11 mission patch and below where Armstrong's name is stitched on — the white fabric gradually turns gray. The thighs, knees and boots are stained with lunar dust.

"When people see it and they know where it's been and what it did and who wore it," he says. "It really just makes such a powerful experience."

In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of his stroll through that dust, Armstrong wrote a letter to the team that created his spacesuit. He commented on the suit's function and fashion. He joked that it was successful in part because it hid from view "its ugly occupant." Its true beauty, he wrote, "was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly. To all of you who made it all that it was ... thanks and congratulations."

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACK KING: Ignition sequence start.

NOEL KING, HOST:

50 years ago today, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J KING: Liftoff. We have a liftoff - liftoff on Apollo 11.

KING: Four days later, the lunar module, or LEM, landed on the moon. Neil Armstrong opened the hatch, climbed down the ladder and prepared to become the first human being to walk on soil that was not of this planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: I'm at the foot of the ladder. I'm going to step off the LEM now.

KING: Armstrong's small step for man was also a giant leap for functional fashion. The spacesuit that he wore was an unprecedented blend of technology and tailoring.

MALCOLM COLLUM: I mean, the suit itself is an engineering marvel. Every single thing on here is engineered to the last little detail.

KING: That is Malcolm Collum of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He's behind a four-year $700,000 effort to fix and preserve Neil Armstrong's spacesuit. It hasn't been seen in public for more than a decade.

COLLUM: It was on display downtown, but we noticed that there was deterioration, and so the decision was made a number of years ago to take him off display and put him in storage.

KING: Now that spacesuit is standing tall again and, starting today, is back on public display.

COLLUM: Almost like a piece of sculpture. This suit really has a presence, an aura.

KING: The spacesuit is mostly white, with brilliant red and blue metal connectors where the air hoses, the helmet and the gloves attach. And the suit is posed with the left leg slightly forward, as if it's about to take that first step on the moon.

COLLUM: Oftentimes, you see spacesuits or any kind of uniform just sort of standing there, looking straightforward, arms to their sides, featureless. To have that step forward just slightly, gives him more of a presence.

KING: There's a big American flag on the left shoulder, and on the chest, there's a bright blue NASA logo. Next to that, there's a patch with big black capital letters that spell out the name Armstrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMSTRONG: There seems to be no difficulty in moving around. It's even perhaps easier than the simulation that we performed on the ground.

KING: The spacesuit was made by a bra manufacturer. The International Latex Corporation, the parent company of Playtex, used its experience with stretchy materials to create the suit. It's made of 21 layers of fabric, rubber and plastic that haven't held up well over the years.

COLLUM: A lot of these materials were designed with the life expectancy of about six months. Here we are, 50 years later, trying to make sure that these materials last on for the next several generations.

KING: A lot of the deterioration was on the inside of the suit. The rubber and plastic parts have been crumbling. The outside of the suit needed to be cleaned, and there were some tears, but not all of the tears were fixed. Collum says they weren't trying to make the suit look as pristine as the day it was made.

COLLUM: We're not removing the original material; we're not replacing any materials. What the visitors are seeing here is exactly what they saw back in 1969.

KING: So as your eyes scan down the spacesuit, the white fabric gradually turns grey. The thighs, the knees and the boots are all stained with moon dust.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARMSTRONG: Surface is fine and powdery. I can pick it up loosely with my toe.

COLLUM: This suit, when people see it and they know where it's been and what it did and who wore it, it's really - just makes such a powerful experience.

KING: That's Malcolm Collum of the Smithsonian Institution. Neil Armstrong's spacesuit goes on display today at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLAR HEAVY'S "THE FALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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