How To Dress For Space Travel

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969, he was wearing one of the most technologically advanced outfits ever created. Nicholas de Monchaux, author of the book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, talks about the surprising history and iconic design of the Apollo 11 spacesuit.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

When Neal Armstrong stepped out onto the surface of the moon in 1969, he was wearing one of the most technologically advanced outfits ever created. It was the A7L spacesuit - A for Apollo, 7 for the suit generation number, L for latex, as in the International Latex Corporation, or the Playtex company. You know those folks that make the famous bras? Neal Armstrong wasn't wearing a bra made by Latex. He was wearing a spacesuit, which was made by Playtex. Interesting.

Twenty-five years later, Armstrong wrote about the spacesuit he wore that day, and he said it turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history. There was no doubt that - due to the fact that it was that it was so photogenic. Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant. Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.

What's interesting about Armstrong's quote is that he's talking about his spacesuit not as an item of protective clothing but as a spacecraft. And my next guest would agree. He thinks of it as a piece of architecture. Nicholas de Monchaux is the author of the book "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo." He's an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor NICHOLAS DE MONCHAUX (University of California): Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: This is a fantastic book. There's so much in here. The first thing I want to ask you, though, is what is the cover made out of?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: The cover is made out of latex, of course. We have to - if you look at the cover, it has that famous picture of Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon embossed in white. But then the black background, standing in for the inky backdrop of space, is the very same material that's hiding underneath all of those white outer layers of the suit, which is black natural latex, the product of a tree.

FLATOW: You know, it's interesting. It's not every day that you hear Neal Armstrong call something cuddly, right? He's not a sentimental type of guy, but he really felt close to that spacesuit, it seemed.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: I think Neal Armstrong is actually the very opposite of a sentimental guy. All the astronauts were, who I met in the course of researching for this book. But what was so compelling to me is that out of all the objects of the entire space race that they feel attached to, they don't - when they come to Washington, they don't visit the giant cathedral of the Air and Space Museum on the mall. They come out to a tiny warehouse in, I kid you not, Suitland, Maryland, where all the spacesuits are stored. And they want to see them, and they want to make sure they're being taken good care of. And they really regard them as part of themselves.

FLATOW: How did a company that was known for, you know, making bras and girdles and Cross Your Heart and I Can't Believe It's a Bra get into the spacesuit business?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, that's a really interesting story. The founder of Playtex - or the International Latex Corporation, to give it its proper name - was a guy named Abram Spanel, who started selling latex products in the '20s, and they would split apart. And so he didn't want to sell latex clothing for adults, where they might be surprised by their clothing coming apart. But he sold diaper covers to babies, which is where the name Playtex came from.

And the company was very successful, but almost went under in the Second World War when it had no government contract. So after the Second World War, Spanel funded an internal research division to just play around with the material, the latex material that the company was working with. And out of those experiments came a proposal to design the Apollo suit in 1962.

FLATOW: Was each one of them handmade?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Each one of them was completely handmade. This is an utterly couture garment: 21 layers of all kinds of different materials, hand-sewn by women who came off the bra and girdle assembly lines to a 64th of an inch tolerance.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: And one particularly astonishing - anyone who's sat in front of a sewing machine will respect not only that tolerance, but also the fact that they couldn't use any pins or fasteners as they sewed these things together, just in case they might puncture the crucial latex bladder and thus threaten the integrity of the air vessel of the suit.

FLATOW: So it was 21 layers.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Yes. And it actually expanded to 29 by the time of Apollo 17.

FLATOW: And did the seamstresses have any say? They're sitting here, sewing one stitch at a time, a tolerance of one 64th of an inch. Did they have any say in, well, you know, if you try this, it might be a better design?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Oh, absolutely. The most pleasurable - right up there with interviewing guys who'd been at the - on the surface of the moon in terms of the fun I had working on the book was interviewing these seamstresses, who are still all alive and well and in Dover, Delaware, where the company is still based and still making shuttle suits.

But they - of course they have - they had enormous opinions. And the actual process, when you look at how Playtex put these suits together, it was this really kind of fabulous combination of on the one hand some engineering expertise, but on the other hand an enormous amount of informal knowledge, not only from the seamstresses but from the actual supervisors as well.

The main engineer on the Apollo spacesuit project for Playtex, a guy name Lenny Shepard, started out as Spanel - the CEO's television repairman. And Spanel noticed he was so handy and invited him to come work for the company. Another executive, George Durney, started out as a sewing machine salesman who had experience in the Air Force.

And so these guys were derided by some at NASA as only having graduated from the school of hard knocks. But in the end, they called themselves hard knocksers(ph) as a kind of badge of honor because the spacesuit, unlike the rest of the vast systems architecture of Apollo, really was a place where that empirical knowledge was tantamount and where the kind of sensitive accommodation of the body and all of its flexible needs turned out to be the most important thing.

FLATOW: One of the more interesting, if not most interesting, aspects of your book is that it appeared that when you discovered something on your research, you went with it. There are so many other things in this book about the space race and the evolution of the space program that have nothing to do with the spacesuit...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...but are so incredibly interesting in your book.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Right.

FLATOW: How did you - I can imagine you saying, I've got to put this in there because no one knew this, you know?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, I mean, I think it was - if you only saw what I had to take out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: ...I think - but the no, the - I think one of the reasons - when I first became interested in spacesuits, I thought I was just going to be able to go and read everything that someone had written about this, you know, the most iconic artifact of the 20th century. But nothing was actually written, certainly in design history, about the actual suit that walked on the moon. The only suits that design historians had ever written about were these hard, beautiful prototype suits that were never successful in actually being flown in space but were much more kind of legible and aesthetically appealing in terms of conventional design thinking.

And so when I - I think one of the reasons that the suit had never been written about is because it's such a complicated object. It has these 21 gossamer thin layers all assembled together to match the body of each astronaut, and then the actual story whereby it's made and all the different people involved is enormously complicated as well.

So I had the idea that in the structure of the book, instead of trying to cram all of that into a conventional linear narrative, that I would instead honor the suit by telling 21 inter-layered stories that were in some ways a testament to the 21 different interlinked layers of the suit itself.

FLATOW: Talking with Nicholas de Monchaux, although I would say de Monchaux if I were in France.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: That's how the - my French ancestors would pronounce it, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Author of the book "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo," a fascinating book. Let's go to some of the phone calls we have here. Let's go to Jan(ph) in Oakhurst, California. Hi, Jan.

JAN (Caller): Hi there. I love your program. I listen to it all the time and then try to inspire my son, who's in science at UC Santa Cruz.

FLATOW: Thank you.

JAN: I was just - I thought it was very humorous when the gentleman that you're talking with said something about this being Playtex. I had no idea that the space industry was working with Playtex and that you said they were Playtex girdles.

FLATOW: Well, they're the same company that made the girdles.

JAN: Well, what is so funny is - struck me funny is I - he said something about them splitting. And I remember being about 14 years of age, very, very self-conscious as all young girls are, and taking a Greyhound Bus from Southern California to Northern California to Humboldt County, and I was wearing my first Playtex girdle.

And I got out of the restroom and when I pulled it down, it split. And I thought, how am I going to get back on this bus with a split girdle that's holding up stockings? I could hardly breathe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEN: I was afraid to even move.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Oh dear.

JEN: And it just struck me so funny to think that this is part of the space industry. That's where it began. I had no idea.

FLATOW: Yeah. Neither of us did. Thanks for calling, Jen.

JEN: Okay.

FLATOW: That's a great story. It's lucky the spacesuits didn't do that, right?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well...

FLATOW: It's more than luck. It's not luck. It's great planning on their part.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: The spacesuits actually had - they had an inner layer of - bonded in-between the latex was a layer of a fabric called nylon tricot, which is the same thing that bras were made of. So it was really girdle technology and bra technology together that held it all in one piece.

FLATOW: Why didn't Playtex advertise this? Or even until - no one knew until, I think, until your book came out, that...

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, I think those who - the - well, there's two reasons why. One is that the actual industrial division of Playtex that made spacesuits did split off in the early 1970s and become a company known as ILC Dover, which is still manufacturing shuttle suits today.

The second reason is, is that I think the - this history, this icon of this masculine heroic narrative, kind of is - the fact that it's made by Playtex has, in some senses, been a bit embarrassing. It's Playtex. The only reason Playtex made the suit, you can imagine how all these - how a kind of masculine culture of engineering accepted an underwear company making spacesuits.

They were constantly battling to beat out being edged out and pushed out of the process. But what they had going for them is that they uniquely could actually make a suit that worked. And so there's something about the story that's really interesting, that this heroic icon hides this strange feminine history of handcraft and couture.

FLATOW: Let's talk about some of the designs that did not work, because they fooled around with all kinds of hard shells too, did they not?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Yes. Those hard shells were, for many years, everyone's idea of how man would go into space. And the - in fact, the RX suits made by Litton Industries were so termed by Joe Kosmo, head of cruise systems at NASA, because he called them the prescription, or RX, for spacesuit design. And they're very, very beautiful objects and beautifully engineered. But for all kinds of reasons to do with weight, stability and the fact that when they failed, they failed catastrophically, recalling the shuttle disaster you were talking about in the previous segment, they never made it to the moon.

Whereas the kind of flexible, multi-layered architecture of the spacesuit failed softly, as well, and therefore was much more similar to, in some ways, to the body that it housed in its characteristics, rather than the giant infrastructure of the space program.

FLATOW: So there was real competition, then, between...

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Oh, there was intense competition. You can imagine. This was one of the most closely fought engineering battles of the entire space program. And, in fact, the - one of the most remarkable stories is when ILC, or Playtex, was, indeed, successfully edged out of the process at one point in 1965 and then battled its way back into a six-week competition between three companies to produce the final suit that would walk onto the moon.

And there was no competition. One suit the - when the astronaut was going down the ladder to the Lunar Lander mockup, his - the head of the suit blew off. And the other suit, the shoulders expanded so much while they were walking around on a fake moon surface that the astronaut wouldn't have been able to get back into the lunar capsule. So there was real, you know - in the end, there was actually no competition at all. But it was partly the, kind of, scrappy origins of this company - not only the fact that it made lady's underwear, but the fact that it was a small group of people, very few of whom had engineering degrees. They just didn't fit into the larger culture of NASA. But my book argues they did fit very much into the way, you know, human bodies actually work.

FLATOW: All right. We're talking with Nicholas de Monchaux, author of "Spacesuit" on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

And joining us now is Flora Lichtman, with on our video pick of the week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: And - that our video pick has very much to do with this topic, right?

LICHTMAN: Exactly to do with this topic. It was put together by the producer of this segment, Katherine Wells. And she did an amazing job taking some of these spacesuit tests, footage from NASA, and putting them together into a spacesuit test ballet.

FLATOW: Hmm. And where did the videos all come from?

LICHTMAN: Well, we should ask Nicholas, because I think he pulled them up.

FLATOW: Nicholas? Nicholas, where - how - these are mostly unseen by the public?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: I believe so. Yes, they were - they were part of the research I did. I was very fortunate to be a fellow for a year at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, which is the only job I've had in my life that my eight-year-old self was thoroughly onboard with. And while I was there, I was able to go through all kinds of astonishing archives, both at the Air and Space Museum and at the National Archives. And those videos are part of the materials that I pulled together, and just trying to figure out this puzzle of how the suit was made and how it worked and how these other alternatives were considered at the time.

FLATOW: And our video shows - very interesting thing, as Katherine put -made a terrific video. She took - these videos you discovered, NASA's testing out these spacesuits.

LICHTMAN: And they're so zany. I mean, it's so fun to watch, because you can see, first of all, see some of the flops. And I really wanted to ask you about that bubble suit, which you have to go to the website to look at, because it really is pretty weird. What was that big see-through bubble all about?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, I think a lot of those suits, especially some of the crazier experiments, were about the fact that - especially in the early 1960s, the NASA engineers, the engineers who had been working successfully on ICBMs and all these other tremendously complicated technological systems, tried to approach designing for the human body in the same way as they designed a gyroscope or a fire control system for a missile and, therefore, thinking from first principles - what's more flexible and mobile than a ball - you know, produced these kinds of bizarre, fascinating results.

This is certainly what interests me as an architect and someone who designs for people every day is too often, even today, we kind of try and fit the way that bodies and cities and all the other messy things that human societies are made of into these elegant diagrams. And the results are comical when they're at the level of the spacesuit. But when they're at the level of an urban redevelopment plan, sometimes not so much.

FLATOW: All right, Nicholas. We've ran out of time. But I want to invite you back - maybe, we'll, in the - we have - in July, when the anniversary of the walk on the moon comes up. Because there's so much in this book about the space race and about the media and how the pictures came back from the moon in a very unusual and unusable way, why they're so grainy, how the White House was cooperating with the media in the whole space race. Would you come back and join - talk more about what was going on?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: I'd be delighted to.

FLATOW: Just fascinating stuff. And thank you for taking time to be with us. Nicholas de Monchaux, who was author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo." Have a good weekend. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Our video pick of the week is up there. And it's a really wonderful video by Katherine Wells. It's a really a spacesuit ballet with music and all kinds of whacky spacesuits.

That's about all the time we have for today.

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