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A Tale of Two Spacesuits

Posted by Josh Rothman  April 26, 2011 04:14 PM

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Launch pads, booster rockets, moon rovers, Mission Control: these icons of the Space Age will pass into history when the Space Shuttle program comes to an end later this year. Of all the images the program will leave behind, none are more resonant than the images of space-suited astronauts standing on the surface of the moon — and in Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux, an architecture professor at Berkeley, dives into the archives to find out how the world's most high-tech garment was imagined, designed, and manufactured. What he finds is surprising: When you think of the Apollo spacesuit, you probably think of it as a piece of technology, but it's also, Monchaux writes, a piece of couture. In fact, the Apollo spacesuits were designed and manufactured not by a defense contractor, but by the consumer clothing company Playtex. The company, famous for its underwear, drew on that expertise to design the 21-layer "A7L" spacesuit.

The spacesuit we know today, it turns out, might have been very different. Many NASA engineers envisioned a hard spacesuit made of metal. Moreover, they thought of the astronaut as a "cyborg": the idea was that cybernetic technologies would integrate the all-too-human astronaut into his heavily electronic spacesuit. A 1960 article in the New York Times, "Spaceman Is Seen as Man-Machine," promised an astronaut that "would not have to eat or breathe. Those functions and many others would be taken care of by drugs and battery-powered devices, some of which would be built directly into his body."

Alas, it was not to be. The hard suits NASA commissioned proved unwieldy, and the "cyborg" concept half-baked. In the end, a "soft suit" was designed by the International Latex Corporation (more widely known under its consumer brand-name, Playtex). Only Playtex could design a suit that both insulated the astronaut and conformed to the body. In fact, by the time of the Apollo missions, Playtex already had decades of experience designing close-fitting synthetic garments. The firm had made a fortune selling the girdles and other "foundation garments" women needed to wear the trim, "architectural" clothes popularized by Dior's "New Look" at the end of the 1940s. The manufacturer of the Apollo spacesuit in 1969, Monchaux writes, also manufactured "the most popular girdle of 1949."

Monchaux's book revels in these kinds of strange connections and surprising ironies. The rapidly changing world of the 1960s, with its revolutions in culture, technology, and fashion, was, he shows, saturated by a common hunger for the future, wherever and whatever it happened to be. The spacesuit, even as it was designed for utility, was also designed to signify that the future had arrived. In fact, the space program itself was born out of a reorganization of American military priorities under President Eisenhower which was known, in an official echo of Dior, as the "New Look in Defense Planning"; early spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts were army green or khaki in color, but covered in a thin silver fabric so that, in the words of NASA designers, they would look "glamorous," "like a spacesuit should — photogenic." "To justify it technically," one designer explains, "we can tell them this silver material is specifically designed to radiate heat or something." The spacesuit helped put men on the moon, but it also did symbolic work: it helped bring the future a little closer to the present.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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