Nicholas de Monchaux: The Spirit of the Spacesuit

Roundup: Talking About History

Nicholas de Monchaux, an assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.”

...If the dazzling image of midcentury spaceflight obscures its dark origins, close scrutiny of the Apollo spacesuit reveals a different and more robust approach to innovation — one that should inspire us at this uncertain moment in space exploration.

Early in the Apollo program, the conventional wisdom was that the spacesuits would be like the rockets: adamantine, metallic, armored and smooth. But repeatedly, prototypes of such suits failed under pressure. In the end, the Apollo spacesuit was made in a more unassuming fashion: needle-sewn by seamstresses taken from the shop floor of Playtex, the bra and girdle company.

The suit was stitched together from 21 layers of different materials as varied as Teflon and Lycra. Each solved a specific problem — from durability (the white fiberglass exterior) to restraining the balloonlike pressure bladder against the astronaut’s body (brassiere-grade nylon). The suit was a literal patchwork of improvisations and adaptations, the kind of invention that typically takes place in the garage, not the lab. Indeed, the suit’s head engineer, Leonard Sheperd, was a former television repairman from Queens who was recruited to Playtex after he artfully fixed the television set of the company’s founder, Abram Spanel.

The success of this “soft” approach — ad hoc, individualistic, pragmatic — should be a lesson to us. The institutional culture and mismanaged expectations of the space shuttle program have contributed, not once but twice, to the destruction of craft and crew. It was not a mere faulty O-ring or insulation fragment that threatened the Challenger and Columbia; it was, as the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger disaster concluded, a tragic disconnect between NASA’s bureaucracy and the real-world complexities of engineering for space. “For a successful technology,” the physicist Richard Feynman wrote in his appendix to the commission’s report, “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”...

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