Book review: Spacesuit

Summary:Quick: are the spacesuits worn by the Apollo astronauts more like medieval suits of armour, diving suits or the girdle my mother wore in 1960? (If you need a refresher course on what girdles were really like, allow me to recommend the TV show Mad Men, whose costume designer is meticulous in all such foundation details.

Quick: are the spacesuits worn by the Apollo astronauts more like medieval suits of armour, diving suits or the girdle my mother wore in 1960? (If you need a refresher course on what girdles were really like, allow me to recommend the TV show Mad Men, whose costume designer is meticulous in all such foundation details.)

Yes, the answer is the girdle: both it and the spacesuit were made by Playtex.

You don't take a lot of chances with technology when you're planning a space mission: you don't want new stuff you don't know much about — you want things you know will work predictably. So it's not that surprising to learn from Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo that although many new types of fabric were tried, the final spacesuit was made from already known materials: latex, mylar and dacron. At its heart, the spacesuit was an inflatable rubber bladder; but making that comfortable, flexible and able to withstand the rigours of space travel — both known and unknown — took 21 layers of fabrics and materials sewn to precise tolerances by expert seamstresses.

Playtex — or more correctly, International Latex Corporation, the company behind the brand — had to fight to be included in the design process. From the first trials, everyone agreed they made the best suit. But NASA's military style expected engineering-style standards and design, and the agency dropped ILC from its list of suppliers because it thought the company was too disorganised. In the end, ILC managed to get itself back on the list in time for the next trials — when, again, it had the best suit, scoring highest on 12 out of 22 tests. ILC wound up the only contender: of the other two, one couldn't fit through the lunar module door, and the other had its helmet blow off. It turned out that ILC's expertise in custom-fitting intimate garments was a great asset.

De Monchaux's telling of this story is not at all linear. This book is the story of the spacesuit and its creation, but it's also a series of 21 essays — one for each layer — on the many strands that had to come together to make the spacesuit a reality: developments in haute couture, bra and girdle design, and engineering, for example. Some are a little tangential, covering technical developments for the space programme such as the breakthroughs necessary to enable the TV transmission; one chapter talks about the history of cyborgs.

If you're feeling sad about the loss of the space shuttle, this might be a good time to investigate this book.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo By Nicholas de Monchaux MIT Press 250pp ISBN: 978-0262015202 Price: £23.70

Wendy M Grossman

Topics: Reviews

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