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02.25.2011
Review> Dressed for Success in Space
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux
Left to right: The first pressure suit designed by Russell Colley and Wiley Post, 1932; The Litton Mark I; The RX2A, 1965; The AX-1 by Vic Vykukal, 1964.
From left: National Archives, College Park, MD; William Elkins; Johnson Spaceflight Center; NASA Ames Research Center and Vic Vykukal

Dressed for Success
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Nicholas de Manchaux
MIT Press, $34.95

John F. Kennedy, fashion, cyborgs, city planning, architecture, and international politics are a few topics that overlap in the history of the Apollo spacesuit. While providing an expose of the A7L spacesuit by International Latex Company (ILC)— a division of Playtex, yes the very same company that brought us the Cross Your Heart bra—author Nicholas de Monchaux critiques many issues facing architecture today.

The Apollo missions aimed to get astronauts out of space capsules and onto the moon, which presented designers with a unique problem. The new spacesuits required two functions, seemingly at odds: maintain a livable microclimate within a vacuum; and allow unimpeded comfortable mobility and flexibility. De Monchaux, an architectural historian at the University of California, Berkeley, tracks solutions to this design conundrum while examining social, cultural, and political activities affiliated with their development.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Astronauts Perform tests on space suits at NASA.
Courtesy NASA / Johnson Space Center
 
 

De Monchaux launches with an overview of aviation from ballooning to space exploration and various attempts to protect the body, either by pressurized cabins and suits or by physiological adaption. Ultimately the body’s limits dictated technological innovation surrounding the astronauts.

New Look, the moniker describing Christian Dior’s 1947 collection that “boldly reconfigured the feminine silhouette,” quickly pervaded global culture. More importantly, its mass media presentation ingrained itself in politics and how the U.S. engaged in the Cold War. De Monchaux shows that while these may seem unrelated, they aren’t. Playtex provided both the Dior’s body forming foundation and the spacesuit that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Further, the media-driven Cold War prioritized the space race to portray technological and military superiority. After all, the ICBMs that could catapult nukes across the globe also carried astronauts into space.

The suit’s demands for lunar landings—thermal, pressure, and puncture resistance to micrometeoroids—yielded a multi-layer suit. Rather than a single hard-body suit, Playtex offered a “soft,” pliable, layered suit in which different materials contribute their assets without yielding to their liabilities. ILC’s soft suits were not NASA’s first choice. Litton “provided stiff competition” with their popular sci-fi looking sleek metal carapaces. Because of lunar orbit rendezvous and payload limits, the superior performing lightweight ILC suit superseded more aesthetic preferences for the Litton.

Surprisingly, these hi-tech suits were handcrafted. Not just the prototypes, but those that maintained microclimates—MEP systems to the extreme—around the astronauts as they traipsed about the moon. Seamstresses assembled these layers with less than 1/64th inch tolerances. However, as adeptly as ILC combined disciplines and technologies, they still, de Monchaux notes, “proved enduringly incapable of fully adapting to the organizational atmosphere of Apollo,” especially in systems management. ILC could not provide the specific documentation their clients demanded.

  Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo
Handmaking a Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment on a Singer sewing machine.
Courtesy ILC Dover, Inc
 

ILC, winning its first contract in 1962, developed spacesuits pragmatically through hands-on experimentation. Because individual astronauts’ dimensions differed, the seamstresses handmade each spacesuit. Inherently at odds with Apollo’s systems management organization this rankled government agencies dependent upon paperwork, specifications and precise documentation. To placate their clients, ILC actually provided a film of a spacesuit-clad test subject playing football.

Growing directly from the space program, this rational and prescriptive management system soon pervaded many organizations and disciplines, including city planning. In 1967 Bernard Shriever, mastermind of the military-industrial complex, created a for-profit consortium of companies to address urban revitalization. However, like trying to tame the nuances of the spacesuit, systems theory crumbled when faced with robust organic topics.  De Monchaux summarizes, “In spacesuits and in cities both—complex nature subverted such a systematic frame.”

Many of de Monchaux’s architectural references seem gratuitous, especially where he speeds through such topics as the aesthetics of hard suits, the Bauhaus, an MIT fashion exhibition, Bucky Fuller, Michael Sorkin, and Georges Teyssot’s introduction to Diller+Scofidio’s Flesh (Elizabeth Diller provides this volume’s succinct foreword). However, he does delve into control spaces, such as simulation, NORAD, the Johnson Space Center, and television studios, once again showing the technological complicity between media and the military-industrial complex.

With so many prototypes and overlapping topics, de Monchaux’s non-linear topics become confusing— a timeline and an index would have been helpful references. The interrelated essays escape didacticism and reveal that de Monchaux did firsthand exploration by interviewing primary sources. What could easily have been a dry technical book stays lively throughout.

James Way

James Way is a Brooklyn-based space explorer and writer.