Bras in Space
October 29, 2013 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Bras in Space: The Incredible True Story Behind Upcoming Film "Spacesuit"
When we think of the Apollo 11 moon landing, what do we think of? President Kennedy’s bold vision. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s heroism (unfortunately we rarely think about Command Module Pilot Michael Collins). Perhaps we even think of the incredible engineers, rocket scientists, astrophysicists and all the other geniuses at NASA who made it possible. Now we want you to think about your grandma’s bra.
Why? Because without the technology behind that brassiere (or girdle), the moon landing would have been impossible. It turns out that the 21-layers of gossamer-thin fabric in the Apollo spacesuits that kept Armstrong and Aldrin from “the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum,” as Nicholas de Monchaux puts it in his remarkable book “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo,” was created by the same people who made your grandma’s bra. Playtex. And now, Warner Bros. has hired Richard Cordiner to adapt De Monchaux’s book, which is a story so good you almost believe it was scripted by a Hollywood scribe, not part of historical fact.


We spoke to De Monchaux about this incredible story, the women behind it, and what the Warner Bros. film might look like.
posted by Room 641-A (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Now we want you to think about your grandma’s bra.


just... no.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 9:08 AM on October 29, 2013

"I hear that phrase just like the Muppet's "Pigs in Space!" Now on to the article... which sounds really interesting.
posted by annsunny at 9:18 AM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The book sounds great. . Considering Playtex was founded by a company that made latex products, and had been soliciting government contracts since WWII, I don't quite get the wow-bras! tone of this, interesting as it is. A company that made latex garments got the bid to make space suits--doesn't seem all that far-fetched.

"Instead, pitted against the military-industrial complex, Playtex created the 21-layer spacesuit, each layer distinct yet interrelated in function to the rest of the whole—a masterly combination of elegance, complexity, and form"

Playtex or rather it's parent company had been a military contractor--it's not some solo seamstress up against Mammoth Industries, Inc.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Previous post on the book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

Stuff like this is why I read a lot about the Apollo program, because there was just creativity and ingenuity on a number of levels, as they worked to solve so many problems.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:28 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ideefixe, I don't think most readers have all that perspective on Playtex' history. Plus: clickbait.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:35 AM on October 29, 2013

This is great. I am old enough to remember the Playtex Living Bra ads and the satire of it as a horror movie in Mad magazine. Good for those ladies who made the spacesuits fit as well as a good bra. My late mother-in-law who was a seamstress and member of the ILGWU would be proud.
posted by mermayd at 9:38 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Considering Playtex was founded by a company that made latex products, and had been soliciting government contracts since WWII, I don't quite get the wow-bras! tone of this, interesting as it is.

I think that connection isn't one everyone could make, and saying "the International Latex Corporation won another government contract" doesn't have the same ring to it. Fun fact: Playtex is still getting government contracts from DOD.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2013

I've remember seeing ads for the Playtex 18-hour bra as a kid. I've never found out what happens after the 18:01 mark.
posted by dr_dank at 9:58 AM on October 29, 2013

I initally scanned this as "BARS in Space" and was like, "....I'm listening."
posted by Kitteh at 10:19 AM on October 29, 2013

That was uplifting.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:35 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think the Playtex/Apollo connection is a ... bit of a stretch. (sorry)

Playtex was created during the post-war ('47) splitup of International Latex Corporation, and was created to focus on consumer products (esp. womens undergarments). ILC had done a lot of government work during the war — making everything from rubber life rafts to aircraft crew helmets — and those ended up belonging to other companies. The helmets were made by ILC's Metals Division, which became ILC Dover.

It's ILC Dover, not Playtex, that got the Apollo contract and produced the moon suits. They also did a lot of other work on pressure suits in the 50s and 60s, including on the X-planes.

Although Playtex does have some government contracts to this day, it's a much smaller player than ILC Dover, which seems to be regularly turning over something in the $15M/yr range. I assume that they were doing a lot more back during the Cold War.

It doesn't seem especially surprising to me that an established military contractor with experience producing high-altitude pressure suits would be chosen for the Apollo program. What's perhaps more surprising is that a familiar and mostly-innocuous underwear/consumer-products company has its origins in a giant wartime defense contractor which still exists in parallel to this day. But to say that a bra company produced the Apollo spacesuits is just ... not supportable. (done now, I promise)
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:36 AM on October 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you like the mundane (?) details of life in space, check out Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can't mention Packing for Mars without mentioning Riding Rockets. Mary Roach said it best in Mars: if you don't read any other astronaut bio in your life, read Mike Mullane's.

If Apollo-era is your interest, Rocket Men is tough to beat.
posted by dr_dank at 11:18 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, like others, I'm not biting. The moon program faced and solved hundreds of thousands of problems, many of which were far more subtle than the spacesuit one. Where's the movie about the company that R&D'd the alloy that was essential to riveting a particularly critical component? Countless stories that will never be celebrated in this fashion, simply because they can't be connected in reductionist steps to boobs.
posted by senor biggles at 11:26 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of a tour of a NASA SFC I had while an intern for NASA.

This older gentleman was taking us (a group of college-aged engineering students, roughly split between men and women) through various areas showing us historical parts of the building and some of the items on display in cases strewn throughout the halls. At one point he got to an astronaut glove and held it up saying "Look at the stitching on this! So tiny and fine! And you know, this couldn't be done by machine -- it had to be done by hand, and the only people who could do it were women. Men's hands can't make stitches this small. So ladies," he addresses us, the engineers, in all earnestness and pride, "rest assured that women have contributed to space flight just as much as the men!"
posted by olinerd at 11:58 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've worked with De Monchaux previously, and have his book, "Spacesuit" on my shelf. I have to recommend it to anyone interested in an expression of complexity theory or the minutiae of the spacesuit's manufacture.

I'll give a nod to Kadin2048 that the article's framing of Playtex as the soul contributor rather skims the surface, but what brief article wouldn't. In particular, Playtex's industrial materials group was spun-off, and eventually ended up being refered to as ILC Dover, with a number of name changes in between. I would suggest that from the stand point of material engineering, there's not such an unfathomable difference between the girdle-maker and the spacesuit-designer.
posted by moink at 1:20 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

"...sewn to within a sixty-fourth of an inch without any pins..." !? I would not want that sewing job. I wonder how many layers at once?
posted by Gwynarra at 1:47 PM on October 29, 2013

If Apollo-era is your interest, Rocket Men is tough to beat.

Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins (Yeah, that guy) is the best book written by an Apollo astronaut. The guy had a gift for words and its a crying shame he turned down a chance to walk on the Moon.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:59 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great story. Thanks for posting this, Room 641-A.
posted by homunculus at 10:36 PM on November 3, 2013

as someone working in a 3D weaving startup specializing in bras, I always find this story inspiring.
posted by jrishel at 1:42 PM on November 4, 2013

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