The Spirit of the Spacesuit

With the final space shuttle mission scheduled to end this morning when Atlantis glides to earth, and with only uncertainty to follow for NASA’s manned spaceflight program, this may seem like the moment to weep for the lost promise of the space age.

It is not. I have shed tears of wonder and awe at the scale and achievement of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, but not for its inexorable end. The close of this phase of space exploration is long overdue. And what appears to be an epic conclusion is, like much of NASA’s history, an elegant mirage.

In 2005 and 2006, I regularly took a long, slow bus ride from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where I was a research fellow, to the warehouse where the Smithsonian stores its Apollo spacesuits. Dry-cleaned by NASA after their return to earth and meticulously preserved since, the suits remain stained, indelibly, with gray-black moon dust. Their surface, a wrinkled study in chiaroscuro, seems alive.

One day, as I rode back to Washington, I saw the full moon rise into view. Preoccupied with earthly concerns, I was startled to tears by the vertigo of having spent the day with those moon-stained spacesuits, objects in human shape that had touched heaven and returned.

Mine were not the shining tears of Walter Cronkite, unforgettably captured on television on July 20, 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. But he and I must have felt that same marvelous mixture of delight and awe, terror and relief, at the scale of human achievement and the shift in history that hinged on a footstep.

We easily forget, however, that the heroic venture had one essential justification: life-and-death geopolitics. In the hot center of the cold war, statecraft was also space-borne stagecraft. After the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into outer space in 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” Johnson’s advisers in recommending a moon landing included not only scientists but also Frank Stanton, the president of CBS.

Props and costumes mattered in this theater of war. That NASA’s equipment should be painted white, and feature no military shields or corporate brands but only “USA,” “NASA” and the flag, was a deliberate decision by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet American rockets were nevertheless cobbled together from instruments of war, their craftsmen drawn from the same network of systems engineers that was devised to manage the arms race and its doomsday scenarios. Our first astronauts went to space hunched into an improvised capsule atop ICBM’s, squatting in place of warheads. The brilliance with which the resulting achievements shone was — like a diamond’s — the result of terrible pressure. We should be glad that this era is past.

But if the dazzling image of midcentury spaceflight obscures its dark origins, close scrutiny of the Apollo spacesuit reveals a different and more robust approach to innovation — one that should inspire us at this uncertain moment in space exploration.

Early in the Apollo program, the conventional wisdom was that the spacesuits would be like the rockets: adamantine, metallic, armored and smooth. But repeatedly, prototypes of such suits failed under pressure. In the end, the Apollo spacesuit was made in a more unassuming fashion: needle-sewn by seamstresses taken from the shop floor of Playtex, the bra and girdle company.

The suit was stitched together from 21 layers of different materials as varied as Teflon and Lycra. Each solved a specific problem — from durability (the white fiberglass exterior) to restraining the balloonlike pressure bladder against the astronaut’s body (brassiere-grade nylon). The suit was a literal patchwork of improvisations and adaptations, the kind of invention that typically takes place in the garage, not the lab. Indeed, the suit’s head engineer, Leonard Sheperd, was a former television repairman from Queens who was recruited to Playtex after he artfully fixed the television set of the company’s founder, Abram Spanel.

The success of this “soft” approach — ad hoc, individualistic, pragmatic — should be a lesson to us. The institutional culture and mismanaged expectations of the space shuttle program have contributed, not once but twice, to the destruction of craft and crew. It was not a mere faulty O-ring or insulation fragment that threatened the Challenger and Columbia; it was, as the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster concluded, a tragic disconnect between NASA’s bureaucracy and the real-world complexities of engineering for space. “For a successful technology,” the physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his appendix to the commission’s report, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Despite the shuttle’s extraordinary achievements, it came to illustrate how ill-suited the military-industrial enterprise is to the only enduring rationales for manned spaceflight: heroism, pure delight and the essential expansion of human possibility.

As entrepreneurial endeavors like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic arise to fill our new gap in manned spacecraft, we have reason to be optimistic. In the same farewell address in which he cautioned against the undue influence of “the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower also issued a second, less-remembered warning, against the related prospect of a world in which a “government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

Such curiosity and its astonishing consequences, as exemplified by the Apollo spacesuit, is likely to flourish more richly outside the organizational constraints and corporate shell of post-Apollo NASA. And so will continue to inspire us all.

Nicholas de Monchaux, an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

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