VIDEO: Preserving Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Spacesuit Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit is about to go back on public display after a Smithsonian effort to preserve it. The effort wasn't to make it pristine. Lunar dust still covers the boots.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/734031425/742109372" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Of Little Details And Lunar Dust: Preserving Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Spacesuit

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/734031425/742109372" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(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")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.