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Review: Spacesuit


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Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
by Nicholas de Monchaux
MIT Press, 2011
softcover, 364 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-262-01520-2
US$34.95

It is, arguably, one of the most famous photographs of the Space Age: Buzz Aldrin standing on the surface of the Moon, a human figure on an alien world. Or, at least, a humanoid figure: there’s nothing in the image that clearly identifies the person as Aldrin, beyond the sideways “E. ALDRIN” nametag on the chest of his spacesuit; his face is hidden by a visor that instead displays a reflection of the lunar lander and his moonwalking partner, Neil Armstrong. Yet, while much has been written about that mission to the Moon, including the rockets and spacecraft that made it possible and the men who made the journey, far less has been written about the spacesuit that allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to venture outside their spacecraft. That’s an oversight that Nicholas de Monchaux seeks to correct in Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

Spacesuit focuses on the development of the A7L suit by a company called the International Latex Corporation (ILC), a company better known by its popular brand of women’s undergarments: Playtex.

An assistant professor of architecture at the University of California Berkeley, de Monchaux takes as inspiration for his book the A7L spacesuit worn on that historic moonwalk. The suit was a complex arrangement of 21 layers of material (28 layers in suits used later in the Apollo program) strong enough to protect the wearer from the harsh environment of space yet light and flexible enough to allow him to move around. He uses that structure as a metaphor for the book itself: the book consists of 21 chapters (which he calls “layers”) covering the history of spacesuit development and other topics. Even the book’s dust jacket is made of latex, mimicking one of the layers of the spacesuit.

The core “layers” of Spacesuit focus on the development of the A7L suit by a company called the International Latex Corporation (ILC), a company better known by its popular brand of women’s undergarments: Playtex. (ILC, as it turns out, is not the only company to have done work in these seemingly antipodal product areas: David Clark Company got its start with products like the “Straightaway”, in essence a male girdle, prior to working on G-suits in World War Two; the company in turn applied that experience after the war to the Munsingwear line of bras.) ILC had a small government division that by the 1950s worked on pressure suits and, later, bid on the Apollo space suit. NASA liked ILC’s concept, but as the company was a small outsider to the aerospace industry, made them a subcontractor to Hamilton Standard.

The book portrays ILC as struggling just as much, if not more, with corporate and government bureaucracy as it did designing and making the suits. Cultural differences between Hamilton and ILC—one well-versed in the emerging discipline of systems engineering, and the other populated with self-described graduates of the “school of hard knocks”—eventually led Hamilton to cancel its subcontract with ILC. NASA, in turn, then held a new competition for the Apollo spacesuit, which ILC won outright. Even then, though, ILC had its difficulties working with NASA, who at times seemed exasperated with ILC’s inability or unwillingness to follow NASA’s paperwork-intensive documentation processes. ILC, though, demonstrated that their processes worked, proving it in sometimes unorthodox ways: to illustrate the performance of the modified 28-layer suit, the company made a film of a test subject wearing the suit playing football on a local high school field. Soon after, NASA accepted the suit.

The suits project “not a mastery of nature through technology, but rather a necessary sympathy to those parts of nature that, like our own bodies, defy easy systemization.”

Spacesuit, though, is not a detailed technical history of the development of the A7L spacesuit, and de Monchaux does not go through the spacesuit layer by layer. Instead, many of the book’s chapters are essays on other topics of varying degrees of relevance to spacesuit design. Some discuss the early history of high-altitude flight and the development of pressure suits, another examines Soviet approaches to spacesuit design. Others, though, stray farther afield: one recounts the “New Look” in postwar fashion, followed by another about Eisenhower’s “New Look” defense policy. Some, which tackle topics as diverse as John F. Kennedy’s health, the development of computer simulation technology, and how the Apollo landings were televised, seem to have little, if anything, to do with the core subject of the book, as if the author needed additional content to fill out his 21-layer structure.

Towards the end of the book, de Monchaux asks a simple but profound question: why is the spacesuit soft? While ILC and others developed spacesuit concepts based on latex and other flexible materials, other companies studied rigid suit concepts. These suits were simpler and sturdier than the complex, layered soft suits like ILC’s A7L; they were also, in many respects, more aesthetically pleasing, with a streamlined, futuristic vibe that the soft suits lacked. The hard suits, though, failed because of the mass and volume constraints of Apollo, as the “softness, squishiness, and stowability” of the A7L won out. However, de Monchaux sees something more than just engineering practicalities for the soft suit’s superiority: he sees a “special affinity” between the suits and their wearers; the suits project “not a mastery of nature through technology, but rather a necessary sympathy to those parts of nature that, like our own bodies, defy easy systemization.” Spacesuit pays worthy homage to that often overlooked but essential technology for human space exploration.


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