HISTORY, CARE, AND HANDLING OF AMERICA'S SPACESUITS: PROBLEMS IN MODERN MATERIALS
MARY T. BAKER, & ED MCMANUS
Air and space museums, unlike traditional museums, collect artifacts of relatively recent manufacture that are in many instances comprised of modern materials.
The origins of early spacesuits can be traced to high-altitude pressurized flying suits. Suit requirements for early Mercury astronauts were similar to those for high-flying military aircraft. Suits for the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs are quite different, as they had to meet different mission requirements. Advances in spacesuit design resulted from materials research and development as well as from experience gained from previous suit design. Despite significant advances in materials engineering and processing since the dawn of the space age, there is much yet to be learned, especially with regard to how such materials will age.
Materials used in spacesuits and the ways in which they deteriorate are listed in table 1. Most of the deterioration processes are accelerated by high temperatures and poor temperature and humidity control.
TABLE 1 MATERIALS USED IN SPACESUITS
During the manufacturer's testing, certain neoprene/natural rubber blends exhibited oxidation and embrittlement. The cause was found to be impurities introduced in the processing of the blend. As time was too short to alter the process, certain stopgap measures were introduced to extend the life of the material to exceed the planned usage time. Unfortunately, the oxidation delayed by these measures has appeared over the years and is causing irreparable damage to suit parts made from the blends, including gloves, boots, and linings. Other materials pose a threat to the rest of artifact, such as plasticized polyvinyl chloride (PVC) tubing, which is a main component of the liquid coolant “underwear.” The plasticizer is migrating to the surface of the tubing and will migrate into any other plastic with which it has contact, causing possible oversoftening and deformation of that plastic.
As these examples suggest, it cannot be assumed that “new objects” and “new” materials require a lesser degree of collections care than more traditional museum objects. At this time, we are possibly losing some historically significant space artifacts because of a casual approach to modern materials and objects of recent manufacture. Apollo 11 spacesuits worn during the first lunar mission in 1969 compare in historic significance to the first successful powered aircraft, the Wright Flyer. How many significant spacesuits will survive the next 90 years under existing exhibit and storage conditions?
This paper addresses the history, care, and handling of America's spacesuits. It concludes with recommendations for storage and exhibit of spacesuits developed by a cooperative project between the Smithsonian Institution's Conservation Analytical Laboratory and National Air and Space Museum (NASM) and based upon preliminary materials research and past experience.