A Dirty Spacesuit Is a Worthy Spacesuit

National Air and Space Museum specialist Amanda Young with Buzz Aldrin and his Apollo 11 spacesuit. i i

Buzz Aldrin (left) and National Air and Space Museum specialist Amanda Young stand with the Apollo 11 spacesuit that Aldrin wore on the moon, at the museum’s preservation facilities in Suitland, Md. Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum specialist Amanda Young with Buzz Aldrin and his Apollo 11 spacesuit.

Buzz Aldrin (left) and National Air and Space Museum specialist Amanda Young stand with the Apollo 11 spacesuit that Aldrin wore on the moon, at the museum’s preservation facilities in Suitland, Md.

Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum
Astronaut Alan Shepard Jr., Apollo 14 commander, plants the U.S. flag on the moon. i i

Astronaut Alan Shepard Jr., Apollo 14 commander, plants the U.S. flag during an Apollo 14 moonwalk in February 1971. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
Astronaut Alan Shepard Jr., Apollo 14 commander, plants the U.S. flag on the moon.

Astronaut Alan Shepard Jr., Apollo 14 commander, plants the U.S. flag during an Apollo 14 moonwalk in February 1971.

NASA
The mission commander spacesuits worn on the moon by Alan Shepard  and John Young. i i

The mission commander spacesuits worn on the moon by Alan Shepard during Apollo 14 (top) and John Young during Apollo 16, are kept in light- and climate-controlled storage at the National Air and Space Museum's preservation facilities. Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum
The mission commander spacesuits worn on the moon by Alan Shepard  and John Young.

The mission commander spacesuits worn on the moon by Alan Shepard during Apollo 14 (top) and John Young during Apollo 16, are kept in light- and climate-controlled storage at the National Air and Space Museum's preservation facilities.

Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum
The boots worn by geologist Harrison Schmitt on the lunar surface during Apollo 17. i i

The boots worn by geologist Harrison Schmitt on the lunar surface during Apollo 17. Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum
The boots worn by geologist Harrison Schmitt on the lunar surface during Apollo 17.

The boots worn by geologist Harrison Schmitt on the lunar surface during Apollo 17.

Peter Golkin, National Air and Space Museum

Taking care of old spacesuits is no simple matter. For example, some of them are filthy — but a curator can't just wash them off. After all, the grey crud might be precious moon dust.

"I have to leave the lunar dirt right where it is, because that's historic dirt," says Amanda Young, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "The ones that are covered with lunar dirt are so beautiful that you wouldn't want to clean them anyway. It's part of their history. It's what they are."

Young has made it her life's work to preserve the nation's historic Apollo-era spacesuits, especially the twelve suits that astronauts wore as they walked on the moon during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Even though Young loves moon dust, she abhors other things that can hurt spacesuits — like the thought of people handling them.

"We try not to touch them too much, because handling is very hard on a space suit, particularly the early ones," says Young. "I always say that the only people who are allowed to touch these suits, other than myself, are the president, because he outranks me, and the astronaut himself. Because I figure they wore them, and they can touch."

The Smithsonian's collection includes more than 100 suits from the Apollo era. These include backup suits, training suits and suits built during research and development. Most are held at a storage and restoration facility in Maryland. Some are in better condition than others.

The Apollo 11 suits worn by Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong "are very fragile," Young says. After the astronauts returned to Earth, the suits went on a tour around the world, and suffered a lot of handling.

"That was a long time before me," she says.

The early suits also are delicate because their interior linings, or bladders, are made of rubber that's breaking down.

"The rubber bladders have become very crisp, very hard, and they shatter if you squeeze them," says Young. "I have suits, you know, the bladder in the inside has just crumbled into pieces. You can't reverse the tide of the breakage and the deterioration."

On some suits, the aluminum rings at the wrist and neck are showing corrosion. On others, the PVC pipes used as life-support hoses are starting to degrade.

Young's team tries to slow the deterioration by keeping the suits in a room that's always about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity level is kept at about 35 percent.

"Keeping them dry is very important," she says, because fungus can grow on the suits, which are laid out flat for storage on racks that are covered with unbleached muslin.

Young has been working on preserving the suits for more than a decade.

"There's no school you can go to, to learn about space suits. I just fell into it. I was very lucky," she says, adding that she's learned to truly admire two groups of people: "The guys who built these suits, and the guys who wore them."

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