We tend to see the “space race” of the fifties and sixties as a unifying event, narrated in our minds by Walter Cronkite, with NASA and the whole country working together to put a man on the moon. In reality, this period was marked by a series of races to create the technology to conquer the final frontier. None of these races was more fascinating than the competition to build the suit that made Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk possible. In his book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press), architecture professor Nicholas de
Monchaux uncovers the layers of the story of the spacesuit, with particular focus on the eventual winner, the 21-layer A7L suit, created by the International Latex Corporation. The company is better known by its consumer brand, Playtex.
Txchnologist talked to de Monchaux about the heroic seamstresses of ILC, suit designs that were dropped, the failures of the Space Shuttle program and the imagery of space. This interview was edited for length.
Txchnologist: Your book is a history of the spacesuit that shows how, in the midst of NASA’s mania for systems engineering, this technical device was created largely by seamstresses.
Nicholas de Monchaux: They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins. So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.
Txch: Did the public know that Playtex had created this suit?
NdM: I think it’s hiding in plain sight. There wasn’t a huge publicity effort by NASA around it mostly because there wasn’t a focus generally on identifying general contractors. Nobody was allowed to put their own logo on anything. It was all a unified effort. By the same token, within the larger culture of the military industrial complex that NASA was a part of, having a girdle manufacturer was, if not embarrassing, than certainly less than totally expected.
Txch: Do you think that the Playtex seamstresses are the unsung heroes of the early space program?
NdM: In my imagination they certainly are. Like few others in the whole process, they really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands. They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled. The same women have made U.S. space suits all the way up to the shuttle and space station era, so the skill is by no means obsolete.
Txch: You explore a lot of false starts and abandoned designs by other companies involved in the spacesuit race. What did you learn about NASA from the ideas it jettisoned?
NdM: To NASA’s credit, I think they were fundamentally interested in performance, otherwise the suit never would have been successful. That said, there was a tendency in the broader engineering culture of the time to imagine that the problem of interfacing a human being into this larger technological system of the space race was an analogous effort to systems integration that drove the various components and interactions.
What became abundantly clear to me was that, not only was it not like any other design problem in the larger space effort, but it was precisely the opposite of any other design effort. The false starts were false starts that tried to design for the body from first principles as you might design a thrust nozzle or guidance system where you reduce something to a set of variables, put them into a systems engineering diagram and produce a component that met all the qualities of that diagram. That’s where you have Playtex drawing on a very different corpus of expertise: on couture sewing, on garment assembly, on stitching and biasing and all of the very different and special modes of expertise that fashion has always had in designing for the body.
Txch: How did Yuri Gagarin’s cosmonaut suit differ from the eventual American design?
NdM: The Soviet space effort was by necessity a ruthlessly practical enterprise because the Soviet Union did not have access to the same technologies as the U.S. had. That expressed itself in the suit. The U.S. spent an enormous amount of effort crafting and perfecting airtight zippers for use on pressure suits and space suits. It was an enormously complex design problem how to get the interdigitating zipper teeth to become airtight. The Soviets didn’t even bother. They just etched a kind of tube of fabric to the belly of the space suit that the cosmonaut crawled into like he was reentering the birth canal. Then they tied it and clipped it in something like a bread clip, which was also airtight. The Soviets were always willing to go to the superficially less elegant solution if it had a kind of foolproof practicality to it.
Txch: NASA engineers were optimistic that man, specifically the American male, could conquer any environment with technology.
NdM: That was a core belief.
Txch: How did this idea affect other areas of American life?
NdM: By 1969, a guy named Howard Finger [ed. correction, it was Harold Finger], who had been the assistant administrator for all of NASA and designed the nuclear propulsion spaceship that Stanley Kubrick recreated in 2001: A Space Odyssey, had become the assistant director of research for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He led a massive effort to deploy the technology of the space age to do urban design and architectural design as well.
There were enormous problems with applying this approach and, by the mid-1970s, this notion that you could directly apply systems engineering to urban problems was fairly soundly repudiated. There was this perception that we had mastered this enormous amount of complexity and it turns out that putting a man on the moon is fairly simple. It’s technologically challenging, given that the sheer amount of force and energy and orbital trajectories that need to be harnessed and negotiated are enormous in scale. But it’s a problem with relatively few variables whereas the city is problem with an enormous number of interconnected variables in which these systems engineering approaches have little applicability.
Txch: You end your book before the advent of the space shuttle – what is your assessment of this era of the space program as it comes to an end?
NdM: I have a lot of respect for the engineers and astronauts involved with the program but it’s a mixed legacy at best. My belief is, with the advent of private space carriers and a new entrepreneurial spirit around space exploration, I think the next 20-30 years are going to be more interesting than the last 30.
Txch: Has the space program lost its power to enthrall people? I think of the episode of The Simpsons where NASA recruits Homer because TV ratings are starting to sink.
NdM: That was true in the Apollo programs. The Extravehicular Activity (EVA) missions were deliberately scheduled during prime time on the East Coast to try and rouse public interest. One thing that people often misunderstand about the Apollo program was that it was not a scientific or technical enterprise at all. It was really an enterprise in image creation. The imagery of spaceflight was a powerful and tangible weapon in the Cold War. Once that image of an American on the moon had been produced, people were less enthralled. With researching this book, I came to see the space race as something that extended further back into our history. In the 18th Century you had a kind of space race between the French and the English about whose balloons were going higher.
Extending the bounds of human possibility turns out to be a very tangible and real and impactful reward. Within our larger culture, space exploration will never be justifiable on scientific grounds as had been the attempt of the space shuttle program. It will nevertheless always have a role in our sense of what’s possible for ourselves and in the extension and delight of our role in the universe.
Top image: Hazel Fellows assembles the shell, liner and insulation cover of a suit at ILC. Courtesy MIT Press.