From the moon to Mars: Lewis and Newman explore spacesuit design in ‘Fashioning Apollo’

Ashley Wall / THE GATEPOST

By Tom Maye

Neil Armstrong’s iconic Gemini spacesuit is deteriorating, Cathleen Lewis, curator in the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said at a panel discussion on Feb. 27 in the Forum.

The spacesuit had long surpassed its intended “16-month” lifespan, and was at risk of falling apart, she said. “No one expected it would last 50 years.” 

Lewis stands on the frontlines of the preservation process, utilizing cutting-edge technology to maintain the suit and other priceless artifacts from the Apollo missions for future generations.

Spacesuit design hasn’t ended with the Kennedy Administration, though. Dana Newman, former NASA deputy now works at MIT designing future space suit prototypes for potential manned missions to Mars, improving on past technological limitations and emphasizing enhanced spacesuit mobility.

She detailed her work alongside Lewis, also discussing her projections for future Mars missions, and how her research could help people with disabilities back on Earth.

The Apollo spacesuit design process was marked by challenges and setbacks, Lewis said. She described the suits as “form-fitting spacecraft” which had to be “completely autonomous,” able to withstand the harsh radiation, extreme temperature fluctuations, and lack of oxygen in the vacuum of space.

Not to mention, the Gemini team only had two years to build it.

“President Kennedy announced the desire to send humans to the moon … in 1961, after the sum-total of 15 minutes of American experience in space,” Lewis said. “We had to do it by the end of the decade, either ’69 or ’70.”

Despite the complexities of designing the suit, engineers had to make use of materials available to them at the time – they were too rushed to invent new technologies, she said. By the time they had found a large group of people experienced in “manipulating and manufacturing with these materials, as it happened, they only had two years to work with it,” she said.

She said the spacesuits were “made by the David Clark Company, just down the road in Worcester.”

The suits were modified from WWII fighter pilot flight suits, using materials the Dupont corporation had made during the 1950s, she said. The Dupont corporation, previously military contractors, were looking to expand their products into a civilian market, she said.

Lewis said the suit was made up of 21 layers, covered by a “beta cloth,” the white layer visible on the suit exterior. The fiberglass fabric, threads coated in Teflon, resisted solar radiation on the moon, she said.

Lewis said the helmets – expanded from the pilot suits for a wider range of vision – were created with a “clear polycarbonate” modeled after airplane cockpits. They were then coated in “monomolecular gold” that would protect from the rays of the sun, she said.

The same materials that made the design a success, pieced together in a short timeframe, led to its rapid post-moonwalk deterioration. For instance, Tygon tubing, rods used to keep the spacesuits cool, would turn “rock-hard” over time, she said.

After the moonwalk, the spacesuit was toured through “all 50 states” on a raised flatbed truck. It was then transferred to Smithsonian, carefully arranged to resemble the televised appearance of the spacesuit as closely as possible, she said.

She noted that, despite being the most famous, the Armstrong spacesuit was likely the least photographed of the Apollo 11 mission. She referenced research from James R. Hansen’s biography on Armstrong, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” who said there were “only five photos of Armstrong during the Apollo mission,” as Armstrong took the majority of photographs on the moon himself.

Most photos of him were “grainy, blurry, [and] incredibly high contrast,” she said.

This display strategy would prove disastrous – the fumes and gasses inside the spacesuit created a “microclimate” that damaged the suit interior over time, she said. In 2006, they pulled the suit from display altogether. “We decided we didn’t know enough,” she said.

The curators at the Smithsonian struggled to determine how to make the suit survive. Not to mention, funding for the programs could be uncertain – after “several failed funding proposals,” Lewis said that four years ago, the Smithsonian “crowd-funded” efforts for new preservation and display techniques on Kickstarter.

In 2015, though, a former employee at ILC Dover, another company involved in the spacesuit’s construction, came forward with meticulous records on spacesuit modifications. The paperwork was seen as unnecessary after company downgrades, and he “was told to put it in the dumpster.”

He held onto them, nevertheless, coming forward after hearing about the Kickstarter campaign.

“As a curator, I couldn’t dream of having this level of documentation,” she said. The preservation efforts were further aided by interviews from alumni groups for related programs.

The Smithsonian now uses infrared and high-resolution photography to map the suit, she said. The curators also put the suit through a CT-scanner and X-ray machine, and used 3D scanning to re-create digital images of the interior, such as places where the spacesuit glove has collapsed.

They had acquired the X-ray machine from a nearby zoo, the only people in D.C. with a portable machine, Lewis added.

The use of digitization “allowed us to tell stories we were never allowed to tell before,” she said.

Lewis said the Smithsonian plans to put Armstrong’s suit back on display in a new exhibit, “Destination Moon,” for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The exhibit will use the accumulated digital images to show the interior workings of the suit.

Still, the path forward is somewhat uncertain – Lewis said the Smithsonian’s goal is to preserve the suit “for another 50 years,” until people with “even greater technological means” figure out how to preserve it another 50.

Space exploration has long evolved since the Cold War tensions of the Apollo missions. Newman said space exploration now “really is international,” with Indian and European Mars rovers alongside American, adding that she embraced innovations from emerging private aerospace corporations, like SpaceX.

Further, Newman emphasized Arts and Design along with STEM in current-day space exploration. “We need everyone,” she said, including ideas from people in creative industries previously overlooked by the aerospace industry.

Newman said after continuing to test technologies back on the moon, exploring and researching life on Mars was the international space community’s next big focus.

Extended space travel is very taxing on the human body, though, which poses a major roadblock to a successful Mars trek. Low gravity causes a loss in bone, muscular, and spinal strength, Newman added.

She said astronauts could be expected to spend “600 days” on Martian surface, doing physically demanding research and exploration, meaning the restrictive pressurized suits of the Apollo missions won’t do. The time spent on Mars could be the equivalent of “5,000 spacewalks – we’ve only done 50 in the course of human history.”

At MIT, Newman came up with the concept of “shrink-wrapping astronauts,” creating a “second skin” design that enhances mobility. Newman said the suit prototypes, called “BioSuits,” are “designed from the human-out,” as opposed to the Apollo philosophy of “shrinking a spacecraft and putting that on a human body,” allowing for a more natural range of movement.

She calls the prototype a “Spider-Man suit,” referring to “spider web” tension lines across the suit made from nickel-titanium alloys. The lines allow astronauts to bend and move “almost as strong as muscles.” Incorporating principles from the field of biomechanics, the design was all “just elegant math.”

Newman said her BioSuit prototypes could have broader implications than space travel. Along with helping improve athlete performance, Newman said her biomechanical research could be applied to help people with mobility disorders like cerebral palsy.

Newman also mentioned a “pod design” spacecraft concept for bringing astronauts to Mars, and a virtual reality simulator using Mars rover footage in development to help scientists on Earth visualize the Martian surface.

Still, much of the Mars mission remains uncharted territory – for instance, during the Q&A session, Newman said the ethics involved in encountering life on Mars are still unclear, and would require international consensus from the United Nations.

In closing the panel, both Lewis and Newman emphasized the importance of recognizing the diverse figures that made the Apollo missions – and, therefore, possibly reaching Mars – possible.

Lewis, after the talk, said that alongside new research into Soviet representations of the space race and spacesuit glove design, she has a research specialty in the role of African Americans in the space race.

Newman displayed some of the women who helped make Apollo possible, including the African American rocket scientists emphasized in the film “Hidden Figures,” and said she would continue to use her influence to fight for gender parity in the aerospace industry.