HISTORY, CARE, AND HANDLING OF AMERICA'S SPACESUITS: PROBLEMS IN MODERN MATERIALS
MARY T. BAKER, & ED MCMANUS
2 A HISTORY OF SPACESUIT COLLECTING AND CARE
The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) owes its existence and its development to Paul E. Garber. In the early part of this century, Garber had the wisdom to recognize important events in aviation history as they were occurring. He was present at Fort Meyer, Virginia, in 1908 when Orville Wright demonstrated the Wright Military Flyer. Garber joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1920 as a preparator. In 1927, while Charles Lindbergh was midway through his daring solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, Garber was in the process of drafting a telegram to Paris, requesting that Lindbergh donate the Spirit of Saint Louis to the Smithsonian Institution. Collecting modern materials and objects is, therefore, not new, but understanding the care they require is more recent.
The early treatment of space history artifacts at the National Air and Space Museum was a simple extension of practices developed for the handling of aircraft and related artifacts. Since then, attitudes and concepts related to the historic significance of various categories of spacesuits, their use and their care, have changed considerably. During NASM's early stages, objects were collected as they became available. Deliberate collecting plans for each curatorial department were not formulated until the late 1980s. Finding storage space for new acquisitions was usually a problem; the quality of the space, provided it could be found, was of secondary concern. Some objects were damaged by strenuous handling and adverse environmental conditions.
During the 1950s, the Smithsonian Institution acquired a storage site in Suitland, Maryland, and constructed several metal storage buildings with the assistance of the Department of the Navy. Procedures for handling the collections were similar to standard warehousing practice. Objects were crated or boxed in acidic cardboard boxes, often without the benefit of packing or padding material, stapled shut, and stacked on metal shelves with boxes of similar dimensions.
The storage facility in Suitland has grown considerably since the 1950s. It has been named the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in recognition of Garber's pioneering efforts. A new storage and restoration facility to be located at Dulles International Airport has been proposed.
On March 3, 1967, by agreement between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Air and Space Museum, the museum was given first refusal on space hardware and equipment that was retired from active service. Thereafter, spacesuits came into the collection a few at a time and at odd intervals. There was no collections policy and no preservation plans were developed for these new space age acquisitions. Many of the suits acquired by NASM were loaned to other museums and in some instances to NASA for exhibit in NASA visitor centers. A number of the suits placed on loan were sent directly from NASA to the borrowing institution or retained by NASA without registration, photography, and condition reporting at NASM.
Between 1968 and 1976, as manned spaceflight programs increased, the museum acquired more spacesuits, and many of them were used as exhibit props. Backup suits and training suits were collected for spare parts. Some suits were supported with ill-fitting department store mannequins. Exhibit conditions, such as light levels, temperature, and relative humidity, were not regulated with the spacesuits in mind, and the length of time suits could be safely exhibited was not investigated. Suits were removed from exhibit when the bright white color of the outer layers of synthetic fabric turned dark yellow or became excessively dirty. In one instance, portions of a Mercury spacesuit losing the outermost aluminum coating were spray-painted silver instead of staff's investigating the reason the aluminum layer was flaking. Some suits were used in demonstrations and considered expendable. Suits actually worn on space missions—called “flown” suits—were considered more significant, and the distinction between flown suits and training suits resulted in a double standard for collections care. Actually, experimental, test, and training suits suits contributed as much to the success of each mission as the suits actually worn in space.
Before 1975, spacesuits not on exhibit or loan were packed in boxes or suitcases and stored in a warehouse in Washington, D.C. In 1975, they were relocated to the Garber Facility, where they were hung on hangers and placed in tall, cedar-lined cases. At that time, there were no storage buildings with museum-quality control at the Garber Facility. Many buildings were unheated.
Several factors contributed to the lack of a preservation plan for spacesuits. First, aircraft restoration was, and remains, the primary treatment activity at the National Air and Space Museum. Restoration philosophy and tradition have had a strong influence on the handling and treatment of small object collections. When a small object required treatment, it was assigned to one of the restoration specialists. The restoration process seemed to answer most collections care requirements, and for that reason, it influenced attitudes about which collections management tasks were important and which were not. It was assumed, for example, that most objects would eventually be restored. There was, therefore, less concern for storage conditions.
Moreover, spacesuits, while important, were a minor element in a very large undertaking. There was great pressure to open NASM ahead of schedule. The museum staff was small, especially those whose responsibilities included collections care.
Another factor that retarded the development of a preservation plan for spacesuits was the general attitude about things that are new. We take for granted objects of recent manufacture, objects we use routinely, and objects designed for rugged service. Spacesuits fit this class of objects. They are of recent manufacture and consist of seemingly indestructible modern materials such as Nomex, aluminized Kapton, and Teflon-coated silica fibers. They were designed to function in incredibly hostile environments, to keep a person alive in Lunar temperatures ranging from minus 250°C to plus 120°C, for example. They had a high degree of puncture resistance as well. Quite naturally, suits designed to operate under such conditions and with zero tolerance for failure were considered indestructible.
A final factor affecting the early care and handling of spacesuits relates to NASA's perception of its own history. It is always difficult to write the history of an event as it occurs or to identify which objects will be historically important. On one shuttle mission, for example, a satellite malfunctioned after being released from the spacecraft. The astronauts discovered that a toggle switch located on the exterior of the satellite was in the “off” position. They constructed a “flyswatter” out of spare parts on board their spacecraft, and after several attempts, swatted the switch to the “on” position. The satellite came to life, and the event demonstrated that manned missions could accomplish tasks impossible with unmanned craft. But today, the location of the “flyswatter” is unknown. Likewise, much of the data that recorded the development and testing of the early spacesuits has been discarded or lost. In some instances, the spacesuits are the last surviving remnant of that historic activity.