Brain Pickings

Fashioning Apollo: How the Spacesuit Was Designed


What Neil Armstrong has to do with combinatorial creativity, underdog innovators, and sports bras.

On July 12, 1969, only 21 layers of fabric, most gossamer-thin, stood between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum.”

So begins UC Berkeley architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo — a fascinating voyage into the sartorial history of space flight through the parallel history of one of its key technologies: the spacesuit. Blending material science, iconic photography, and intriguing trivia (did you know that the Apollo mission’s computer-backup system was crafted into a binary pattern that was then physically woven into ropes?), the book itself is cleverly constructed as a series of layers corresponding to the 21 layers of the Apollo spacesuit.

The story of the Apollo spacesuit is the surprising tale of an unexpected victory: that of Playtex, maker of bras and girdles, over the large military-industrial contractors better positioned to secure the spacesuit contract. This book tells the story of this victory, and analyzes both the Playtex suit — a 21-layer, complex assemblage — and its ‘hard’ competitors. It is the clean lines of the latter that have traditionally captured designers’ imaginations: one noted critic described the AX-3 ‘hard’ suit as ‘the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.'”

For more on these competitors, as well as the evolution of the spacesuit over the following decades, see The Smithsonian’s excellent Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the spacesuits is its testament to combinatorial creativity and the idea that everything comes from what came before. Monchaux writes:

A space suit is made out of a flight suit, a Goodrich tire, a bra, a girdle, a raincoat, a tomato worm. An American rocket ship is made out of a nuclear weapon, and a German ballistic missile; a ‘space program’ — a new organization with new goals — is made out of preexisting military, scholarly, and industrial institutions and techniques.”

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a closer look, and BLDG BLOG has a wonderful interview with de Monchaux.

Meticulously researched and captivatingly written, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a fine addition to the year’s best history books.

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