HISTORY, CARE, AND HANDLING OF AMERICA'S SPACESUITS: PROBLEMS IN MODERN MATERIALS
MARY T. BAKER, & ED MCMANUS
3 PRESENT METHODS OF DISPLAY AND STORAGE
Today, all spacesuits belonging to NASM are on loan to other agencies and museums, on exhibit at the museum, or in storage (see table 2).
TABLE 2 NASM SPACE SUITS ON LOAN AND IN STORAGE
There are several good reasons for loaning spacesuits to other museums. One is the Smithsonian's policy of making its collections available to the largest audience possible. In addition, from 1968 until 1982, collections storage availability and conditions at NASM were marginal. Even today, museum-quality storage space for spacesuits is filled to capacity; there is, therefore, no available storage space for those suits already on loan. For many spacesuits, the loan program was, and is, very beneficial.
Still, it is important that staff at borrowing institutions have proper guidance or oversight from lenders. They must be aware of the effects of light, UV radiation, and temperature. Objects should not be exposed to direct sunlight or to lights at close quarters in exhibit cases. UV filtering plexiglass should be used in case construction and installed over fluorescent light tubes. Spacesuits should not remain in the same position for extended periods of time lest uneven exposure to light cause localized damage. Light levels should be monitored, and spacesuits should not remain lit when lighting is not needed. Environmental conditions should meet the requirements for spacesuit preservation and be monitored continuously.
Staff need to remember that each spacesuit was “tailor made.” The suits should not be worn by others and should be handled carefully during demonstrations. Commercial mannequins are not appropriate supports for spacesuits. Some are constructed of acidic materials and often they can rip lining materials. Spacesuits cannot be exhibited safely for extended periods of time. Loans need to be of limited duration and should not be automatically renewed.
Regular condition reporting and photography are required to detect embrittlement of rubber elements and the slow gradual yellowing of a spacesuit. In the past, flaking aluminum on some Mercury spacesuits exposed the red adhesive substrate that was described by some as rust. Today the causes of such effects need to be investigated.
Even spacesuits exhibited at NASM experience these problems. The extensive use of glass and skylights in the museum building exposes artifacts to high levels of ultraviolet radiation, visible light, and infrared radiation. The artifacts still have no protection from ultraviolet radiation, other than the meager filtering effect of the glass in the sky lights. During the early years, there was no collections management department or conservator, and light levels were not monitored. The museum lighting policy issued by the exhibits department established light level limits for certain categories of objects but did not specify permissible exposure times. The outer shells of the spacesuits worn by Gemini IV astronauts Ed White and James McDivitt were severely damaged by light and therefore retired to storage. Reproductions of outer garments were prepared to replace the originals. An Apollo A7LB spacesuit, which was displayed in the Skylab exhibit, was damaged by light, water from a leaky skylight, and dirt. It too, had to be removed from exhibit.
The large number of visitors presents another problem. Visitor safety was and is a critical concern. Revolving entry doors used initially to conserve energy and to maintain a stable interior environment were considered a safety hazard. They were replaced with a series of doors that open directly to the outside; there is no foyer. Dirt from gravel walkways, pollution from idling sightseeing buses, and insects now have greater accessibility to the collection. Temperature and relative humidity fluctuate wildly, according to weather conditions and the number of visitors entering or leaving the building. Ironically, many important artifacts are exhibited at the major entry points: the Apollo 11 capsule containing Michael Collins' suit, John Glenn's Friendship Seven Mercury capsule, and Gemini IV with the suits of White and McDivitt.
Finally, until a conservation department was established, conservation functions were shared among departments. Spacesuits placed on exhibit were not properly mounted. Environmental conditions were not monitored. Materials selected for exhibit construction did not necessarily meet conservation criteria. For example, cement dust was used to create a Lunar landscape in two exhibit cases. Among the items exhibited in the Lunar cases were Eugene Cernan's Apollo 17 Spacesuit and Apollo 11 spacesuits worn by astronauts Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. The cement dust, which was very alkaline (pH 11), had penetrated the weave of the spacesuits and was suspected of contributing to the flaking of the outer layers. For many years, this hazardous condition was not recognized.