We tend to see the “space race” of the fifties and sixties as a unifying event, narrated in our minds by Walter Cronkite, with NASA and the whole country working together to put a man on the moon. In reality, this period was marked by a series of races to create the technology to conquer the final frontier. None of these races were more fascinating than the competition to build the suit that made Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk possible.
In his book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press), architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux, uncovers the layers of the story of the spacesuit, with particular focus on the eventual winner, the 21-layer A7L suit, created by the International Latex Corporation, better known by its consumer brand, Playtex.
Matthew Van Dusen: Your book is a history of the spacesuit that shows how, in the midst of NASA’s mania for systems engineering, this technical device was created largely by seamstresses.
Nicholas de Monchaux: They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins. So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.
MVD: Did the public know that Playtex had created this suit?
NdM: I think it’s hiding in plain sight. There wasn’t a huge publicity effort by NASA around it mostly because there wasn’t a focus generally on identifying general contractors. Nobody was allowed to put their own logo on anything. It was all a unified effort. By the same token, within the larger culture of the military industrial complex that NASA was a part of, having a girdle manufacturer was, if not embarrassing, than certainly less than totally expected.
MVD: Do you think that the Playtex seamstresses are the unsung heroes of the early space program?
NdM: In my imagination they certainly are. Like few others in the whole process, they really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands. They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled. The same women have made U.S. space suits all the way up to the shuttle and space station era, so the skill is by no means obsolete.
MVD: You explore a lot of false starts and abandoned designs by other companies involved in the spacesuit race. What did you learn about NASA from the ideas it jettisoned?
NdM: To NASA’s credit, I think they were fundamentally interested in performance, otherwise the suit never would have been successful. That said, there was a tendency in the broader engineering culture of the time to imagine that the problem of interfacing a human being into this larger technological system of the space race was an analogous effort to systems integration that drove the various components and interactions.
What became abundantly clear to me was that, not only was it not like any other design problem in the larger space effort, but it was precisely the opposite of any other design effort. The false starts were false starts that tried to design for the body from first principles as you might design a thrust nozzle or guidance system where you reduce something to a set of variables, put them into a systems engineering diagram and produce a component that met all the qualities of that diagram. That’s where you have Playtex drawing on a very different corpus of expertise on couture sewing on garment assembly; on stitching and biasing and all of the very different and special modes of expertise that fashion has always had in designing for the body.
MVD: How did Yuri Gagarin’s cosmonaut suit differ from the eventual American design?
NdM: The Soviet space effort was by necessity a ruthlessly practical enterprise because the Soviet Union did not have access to the same technologies as the U.S. had. That expressed itself in the suit. The US spent an enormous amount of effort crafting and perfecting airtight zippers for use on pressure suits and space suits. It was an enormously complex design problem how to get the interdigitating zipper teeth to become airtight. The Soviets didn’t even bother. They just etched a kind of tube of fabric to the belly of the space suit that the cosmonaut crawled into like he was reentering the birth canal. Then they tied it and clipped it in something like a bread clip, which was also airtight. The Soviets were always willing to go to the superficially less elegant solution if it had a kind of foolproof practicality to it.
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