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Lift and separate
July 21, 2011 9:14 AM   Subscribe

Initially the conventional wisdom was that spacesuits “would be like rockets: adamantine, metallic, armored and smooth.” But in practice, rigid spacesuits repeatedly failed under testing. So when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon they were protected from the vacuum of space by flexible spacesuits crafted from twenty-one layers of fabric, “each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles” for the Playtex Corporation. The Spirit of the Spacesuit , Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

by Nicholas de Monchaux, assistant professor of architecture and urban design at UC Berkeley.

This is the story of the Playtex Corporation’s triumph over the military-industrial complex—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics. Anticipating the space age, the International Latex Corporation (ILC), known by its consumer brand “Playtex,” conducted basic research on adapting its latex expertise to pressurized suits. Initially ignored, this research became central to the development of the Apollo space suit.

This is the story of the idea of layering itself, and the related strategies of redundancy and interdependence. The suits were stitched together from 21 layers of different materials as varied as Teflon and Lycra. Each solved a specific problem . . . a literal patchwork of improvisations and adaptations, the kind of invention that typically takes place in the garage, not the lab.

Crafting Shuttles: Labor of love, vanishing art
The Handmade space shuttle

As space shuttle Atlantis [concludes] NASA's last shuttle mission, it's worth remembering that key parts of this high-tech spaceship were handmade by people back here on Earth. . . using everyday tools like sewing needles and X-ACTO knives. . .

Theresa Haygood, an expert seamstress constructed small, white quilted blankets using glass thread and special heat-resistant cloth. These thermal blankets are part of the heat shield that protects the shuttle during its fiery re-entry. Haygood sewed them into precise shapes that would fit onto the shuttle like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. The job used skills she had been perfecting since she was a child, begging her grandmother for needle and thread to make Barbie clothes.
posted by Herodios (25 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
excellent stuff, see also space suit of the week.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:31 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles” for the Playtex Corporation.

liftoff and separate
posted by DU at 9:39 AM on July 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


A family friend was instrumental in designing the space suits for the Apollo missions.
"Throughout the early 70's a smart guy by the name of Erik Giese had worked for NASA in the days of early space suits for the first landings on the moon. The big problem in space suits is they had cooling, heating and electric lines running throughout the suit and as the astronauts did space walks they had a big problem with them kinking and getting crimped when people tried to walk with their knees and ankles flexing. The solution was articulating hinges which had ribs to allow flex in the ankles, knees and elbows to preserve the shape of the suit around the joint. Today you see this on everything from water pipes to flexible drinking straws."*
Erik went on to design the Raichle, Interflex and Full Tilt lines of ski boots, FootJoy Contour Series of shoes, Redfeather Snow Shoes and many other innovative products.
posted by ericb at 9:41 AM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


My seventh grade science teacher had a space suit he got at a NASA auction, it was amazing. I remember that one layer was a fine white mesh that was actually made of very fine tubes that they pumped coolant through. That was pretty mind blowing in 1975.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:52 AM on July 21, 2011


The early argument against a flexible suit was that in vacuum it would be inflated with the gas inside, and be very fatiguing to flex the joints.

And they are, it turns out. There's a reason why astronauts are chosen for being in superb physical condition. They have to be.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2011


Personally, I'm a Soyuz junkie to the degree that I'm working up the nerve to get a Soyuz TMA inked into the space around my nerdy Ovid tattoo, so I'm a little biased towards the slightly sloppy, relatively simple, and thoroughly Soviet-looking Orlan and Sokol suits.

The Orlan, in particular, is a nice beigey, tannish sort of color, which won't show stains and dirt nearly as much as the plastic fantastic glaring whitey-white American suits that don't even have enough zippy, futuristic flair to deploy a sporty set of go-faster red accent stripes. I mean, seriously—you're in outer space or bouncing around the damn Moon, for pete's sake. Would it really be so bad to show off your verve with a little bit of flashy embroidery?

The Sokol suit, on the other hand, has the advantage of manual penis access, which enables the gross, but strangely compelling, standing Soyuz tradition of pissing on the wheel of the spaceport bus before launch (I think this is NSFW for some folks, even though you can't see a damn thing). With our penchant for needlessly overcomplicated engineering, I would imagine that, in our suits, you have to deploy the Canadarm, guided by a team of Earth-based experts, to get your dick out, with the terrifying possibility that someone down there doesn't understand the difference between metric and archaic measurements. One can only hope that this will enable some reckless cosmonaut to create the first scandalous space capsule porn on Xtube.

Well—I can hope this, but then I'm a Soyuz junkie.

That said, I love that we bounced around the Moon in Playtex. You go to where the technology is that works, sometimes. It's elegant and unusually practical for the USA, where we'd otherwise have dealt with the problem like military ass-kissing bulletheads with unlimited funding and a paucity of institutional "NO-men."

Next stop, Frederick's of the Moon for some kicky spikes!
posted by sonascope at 10:25 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


the plastic fantastic glaring whitey-white American suits

From the NYT link in the FPP:
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.
posted by Herodios at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wikipedia article on the Apollo spacesuits, with photos and drawings, along with another informative link.

Trivia time! Each Apollo astronaut on a crew had 3 custom made spacesuits fabricated, at about $140,000 per suit. One suit was for training in, another for the actual flight and the backup suit was for if the flight suit got damaged before the flight. Astronauts wore the training suit to get used to being in a suit for long periods as they prepared for a flight. Then they wore the flight suit for a small amount of time before launch, to break it in.

Yes, they could go to the bathroom in the suits. The condom like device was fitting over the penis was a bit uncomfortable and came in three sizes. Astronauts named these sizes something like Large, Immense and Unbelievable (paraphrasing from memory). During training, some astronauts didn't put the device on too well, so would wind up peeing and then feeling it pool at their backs. They'd usually have to lie like that for a couple of hours, earning the nick name "wetbacks".

According to Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot (dude that circled the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin went for a walk), it was common for astronauts in the Gemini program to find out they had been assigned a flight by being told to fly up to Delaware to get their measurements taken. Collins was also the astronaut liaison for the space suit design in Gemini, so he met and talked with some of the ladies who actually put the suits together. There's a photo of them in his autobiography and they look exactly like grandmothers.

On preview:
The early argument against a flexible suit was that in vacuum it would be inflated with the gas inside, and be very fatiguing to flex the joints.

Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, talked a lot about being dog tired after wearing the Apollo suit for the 7 hour EVAs on the lunar surface. Picking up anything was described as having to squeeze a tennis ball and having to do it repeatedly rubbed his fingertips raw.

And they are, it turns out. There's a reason why astronauts are chosen for being in superb physical condition. They have to be.

The hilarious part is that NASA had no official physical training program for astronauts in the early programs (don't know if they do now). So in Gemini, one astronaut would go on a spacewalk, get tired and advise later astronauts to bone up on their jogging and weightlifting.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:34 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


It saddens me to see such great stories as this, and think that the greatest stories of the space program are still from Apollo. And there are a lot of stories like this. I knew some people who worked at Collins Radio on the Apollo avionics, they used to go on and on about their antenna designs. It was fascinating, if you had enough radio background to follow it. Alas it's not so widely understood a subject as clothing, so we're unlikely to see any books with wide appeal like this one.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:48 AM on July 21, 2011


Just noticed the title. D'oh.
posted by DU at 11:04 AM on July 21, 2011


Here's an interview with Mike Collins PDF), from NASA's oral history project. Page 5 has him talking a bit about his experience with helping to design and choose the spacesuits for Gemini and Apollo.

All the astronauts were given a particular area, usually based on their background, to oversee and assist with (Neil Armstrong was assigned to help with the simulators). Collins got assigned the space suits, can't remember why.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2011


The early argument against a flexible suit was that in vacuum it would be inflated with the gas inside

On the very first human EVA, during the Voskhod 2 mission, the suit blew up like a balloon so rigid that cosmonaut Alexei Leonov could neither operate his camera nor retrieve it while outside, and then got stuck sideways in the inflatable airlock to the point where he had to depressurize his suit in order to get back in. Back to the drawing board for the Soviets after that go-round.

Had he been able to use his camera, I suspect "Yakety-Sax" might have been an appropriate soundtrack, alas.
posted by sonascope at 12:13 PM on July 21, 2011


If you like these kind of stories, I recommend "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void", by Mary Roach. Sometimes she forces the wacky a bit much, but it's full of interesting facts about the minutiae of space flight.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:39 PM on July 21, 2011


Astronauts named these sizes something like Large, Immense and Unbelievable...

So much for ever ordering at Starbucks without thinking of astro-cock.
posted by griphus at 12:40 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can I just say, I read this this morning and sure, the Playtex references are cute, but the abstruse 'lesson' drawn at the end, and the cut about post-Apollo NASA lacking curiosity especially, are totally bogus. If you want to see some world-class curiosity, just fund James Webb.
posted by newdaddy at 1:40 PM on July 21, 2011


One of the criticisms I have seen of the US space program is that every US spacecraft ever flown has been hand-crafted, and even those which were part of a series were highly individual as changes and improvements were made. NASA doesn't reuse design; knowing the margins and striving for maximum efficiency, they start with a blank piece of paper every time.

So we threw away the very capable Apollo designs to do the Shuttle, which was very capable in a different way but the huge amount of work necessary to refit a Shuttle between missions was not accurately foreseen by its designers. (One early criticism of the whole idea of "reusable spacecraft" is that you wouldn't want a used spacecraft; they are stressed to such extremes that material fatigue and wear are unbelievable.)

Meanwhile, the Soviets figured out how to build a spacecraft that worked. Took them a few tries to get it right, but once they did they kept making it. They kept the people who knew how to make the parts busy making those parts year after year, they kept the assembly people busy so their skills stayed fresh, and they didn't keep changing stuff around once it worked. The end result might not have looked much like a Ford assembly line, but it actually did look a lot like a Saturn (the car, not the rocket) assembly plant.

And that is why today the Soviets may not have the biggest or fastest or sexiest rockets, but they actually have human rated rockets ready to launch. And we don't.
posted by localroger at 4:05 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


NASA doesn't reuse design; knowing the margins and striving for maximum efficiency, they start with a blank piece of paper every time.

The American space program was Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the Shuttle and the Multi Crew Vehicle. The Soviet/Russia program was Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz, LK and Buran.

Voskhod was a shitty upgrade of the Vostok and they realized this and only flew it for two missions. Gemini was a new craft that built on the knowledge gained from Mercury and did new tasks. Soyuz was supposed to go to the moon, but since the damn N1 rocket kept blowing up and killing people, they never happened. The Zond program attemtped to use the already constructed and used Proton rockets to at least send a crew of two in a stripped down Soyuz to the moon for a circumlunar flight. It failed, until after the American had already landed on the moon twice. The Americans built the Command/Service Module and went to the moon on the second manned flight of the ship. This happened not because that was the plan, but because NASA were killing time, waiting for the LEM to be finished and needed something to do in the meanwhile.

The LK was successfully tested in Earth orbit, but there was no rocket to take it to the moon, so there was never a manned flight. NASA wanted to build moon bases, a space station, space tug and a shuttle. They were told no to everything except the Shuttle and told to build it at half the cost they asked for. So they built the Shuttle, which freaked out the Soviets, who decided they had to have a shuttle too, then found out they couldn't pay for it.

That trusty and much admired Soyuz craft? The Russias have worked on several replacements including the Prospective Piloted Transport System, the Kliper and the CSTS. But they're badly underfunded, so it's debatable whether any new craft will be rolled out.

Soyuz has been a reliable craft, but mostly that's been because it has to be, due to the Russians being underfunded and not having quite the skill or drive to send a manned spacecraft beyond low earth orbit. The Americans didn't start with a blank sheet of paper for each new craft, they started with dozens of textbooks about what they had learned from previous spacecraft and incorporated that knowledge into the new craft.

Both the Soyuz and Command Module were crappy ships in their first versions. This got people killed, so both programs stopped flying for a while. Both ships were rebuilt and made great.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:28 PM on July 21, 2011


Moon Machines told it best.
posted by evilensky at 7:04 PM on July 21, 2011


Brandon, it seems that you think you are contradicting me except you seem to agree with everything I was saying.
posted by localroger at 7:24 PM on July 21, 2011


Nah, I don't agree that the US building new ships for new programs was a problem or mistake. Nor do I think the current lack of a US launch system is a huge problem or that the Soyuz is magicial wonder ship and a sign of superior Russian planning, knowledge or engineering.

But never mind all that, take a look at this photo of Atlantis returning home, taken from the ISS.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:55 AM on July 22, 2011


I don't agree that the US building new ships for new programs was a problem or mistake.

I don't think that was a mistake either. The mistake was stopping building the systems that we had spent $millions debugging and were known to work.

For sheer mass to orbit Apollo was the most capable, cheapest platform ever developed. The Shuttle was supposed to become cheaper (remember 100 launches per year?) but that didn't happen. The Shuttle did become more capable than Apollo in some ways, such as crew capacity, but it never matched Apollo for dollars per pound to LEO and it was never even intended for deep space capability. We had such a system, and we threw it away.

This is the contrast between us and the Soviets. Having spent their $millions making a spaceship that worked, they kept making it. Sure they tried others, with mixed success, but they didn't stop making the one that works.

And that's why we will be paying them to ferry our people to the ISS for the foreseeable future.

(That is a nice pic of Atlantis from the ISS.)
posted by localroger at 5:34 AM on July 22, 2011


The Shuttle did become more capable than Apollo in some ways, such as crew capacity, but it never matched Apollo for dollars per pound to LEO and it was never even intended for deep space capability. We had such a system, and we threw it away.

Ha, I'm annoyed we're throwing out the Shuttle design and going back to Apollo type capsules, seems silly. In a perfect world, both would probably exist, with Apollo being used for deep space and shuttle for hauling cargo back and forth, yet under a newer design that reflects everything NASA learned from the previous shuttles. And perhaps something closer to the original, smaller design of it, before the Air Force mandated the huge cargo bay which necessitated larger, heavier wings.

Obviously we stopped using Apollo because there was a completely different mission with different tasks, so I don't view no longer building Command/Service Modules as mistake, just change in plans with obvious pluses and minuses in hindsight. The mistake with the shuttle was the expensive and somewhat insane demands made by the Air Force, which was a condition of getting the Shuttle at all. Hopefully, Congress learned from that, but I doubt it.

For sheer mass to orbit Apollo was the most capable, cheapest platform ever developed.

I don't have any numbers on that. Can you cite any in comparison to Soyuz? No biggie if you can't, just curious.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:25 AM on July 22, 2011


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.
What went wrong President George W. Bush?
posted by panaceanot at 6:25 AM on July 22, 2011


There's an interesting answer in this NASA forum thread which comes to the conclusion that Saturn and Shuttle are about equivalent in cost per pound to orbit, on the basis of taking total program costs and dividing by the number of missions. But that calculation spreads the Apollo R&D costs over only the dozen missions that were flown before it was cancelled. Had the Saturn program been extended it's likely that its per-mission costs would have plunged as R&D costs were spread over more missions, as the Shuttle costs were spread over more than 100 missions.

The Wikipedia article on the Saturn V states flatly that "No other operational launch vehicle has ever surpassed the Saturn V in height, weight, or payload." Saturn's payload to LEO was 4 times that of the Shuttle, and it could be launched without a crew which makes more sense for putting heavy cargo in orbit. With Saturn we could have flown the entire ISS in a handful of launches. We simply don't have anything now that can put 150,000 KG of payload in LEO in one swell foop. Of course, neither does anybody else; but right now, we also don't have anything that can put people in LEO, either.
posted by localroger at 6:00 AM on July 23, 2011


Shuttle Duo Nose-to-Nose Rendezvous highlights Retirement Duty
posted by homunculus at 9:03 AM on August 16, 2011


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