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Preserving Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Space Suit: NPR



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When astronaut Neil Armstrong walked for the first time on the moon 50 years ago, it was a giant step for functional fashion.

The spatial suit that he wore was an unprecedented blend of technology and couture.

"The combination itself is a marvel of engineering," said Malcolm Collum, chief curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Air and Space. "Everything here is a specific function and it is designed in every detail."

Take the metal fasteners that connect the helmet, the air tubes and the gloves. They are brightly colored – for example, a bright red metal for the right glove, a neon blue for the left. Patriotic, yes, but also exceptionally functional. This is because NASA wanted to make sure that, despite the excitement of landing on the moon, Armstrong was able to easily connect his equipment.

The space suit that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago. Apollo 11 took off for the moon on July 16, 1969 and Armstrong made his famous "giant leap" five days later.

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The space suit that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago. Apollo 11 took off for the moon on July 16, 1969 and Armstrong made his famous "giant leap" five days later.

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And this attention to detail is evident from the helmet to the foot. The seams are meticulous – much of it is handmade in 1969. The suit must be strong, flexible and waterproof. Armstrong's life depended on a finely guided needle and wire.

But decades of exposure throughout the country have had adverse consequences. In 2006, Smithsonian technicians noticed that Armstrong's spacesuit was showing signs of age. They removed it from the museum of air and space in Washington, then transferred to a warehouse and deposited in a drawer.

Collum and his team of technicians are tasked with putting the Armstrong space suit in public view.

It has been a preservation effort of $ 700,000 over four years. Collum and his team at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum, a Smithsonian outpost located a few miles from Washington, cleaned and repaired the interior and exterior of the spacesuit, and then adjusted it to a mannequin specially designed for this purpose. controlled case. The suit is once again on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 16, the day Apollo 11 took off for the moon.

According to Collum, the team's work was more focused on conservation than on restoration. The Smithsonian does not try to make the spacesuit as pristine as the day it was made.

The spacesuit was designed to help Neil Armstrong easily connect his equipment. The metallic elements of the suit are brightly colored, so that even in the enthusiasm of landing on the moon, Armstrong can attach his helmet, his air tubes and his gloves.

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The spacesuit was designed to help Neil Armstrong easily connect his equipment. The metallic elements of the suit are brightly colored, so that even in the enthusiasm of landing on the moon, Armstrong can attach his helmet, his air tubes and his gloves.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"We are not removing any original material, we are not replacing any material that may now be damaged or missing," he said. "We are really trying to say that what visitors are seeing here is exactly what they saw in 1969."

For the most part, the outside of the suit resisted well. There were some rips on the fabric and some were repaired. Much of the deterioration has occurred inside.

Malcolm Collum, chief curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of Air and Space. Collum led the team of technicians responsible for preserving the space suit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon.

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Malcolm Collum, chief curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of Air and Space. Collum led the team of technicians responsible for preserving the space suit Neil Armstrong wore on the moon.

Claire Harbage / NPR

The space suit is composed of 21 layers of fabric, rubber, metal and fiberglass. It has been designed to be airtight and strong enough to prevent punctures caused by micrometeorites, tiny particles of dust that pass through space at incredible speeds. Collum says time is now his biggest threat.

"Many of these materials have been designed with a life expectancy of about six months," he says. "And after that, NASA made fun of it because they knew the combination would no longer be reused – we are 50 years later trying to make sure these materials last for generations."

Before the technicians got to work, they were doing extensive X-rays and 3D scanning of the spacesuit. This allowed them to assess what needed to be done to preserve it. They concluded that the internal rubber and plastic parts had begun to disintegrate due to the accumulation of noxious fumes. There was not much to do to repair the damage, but the technicians were able to slow down the deterioration by creating a dummy specially designed to channel a steady stream of fresh air throughout the suit.

The manikin that now wears the suit is designed to preserve its rubber and plastic inner parts.

An earlier version of the manikin that keeps the suit in place. The manikin is designed to preserve the rubber and plastic internal parts of the suit. It provides structural support and fresh air hoses to protect against the accumulation of harmful fumes.

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An earlier version of the manikin that keeps the suit in place. The manikin is designed to preserve the rubber and plastic internal parts of the suit. It provides structural support and fresh air hoses to protect against the accumulation of harmful fumes.

Claire Harbage / NPR

"Like all materials, they eventually get degraded.Plastics and rubbers are a little faster than other materials.That's why we designed the manikin, which provides not only structural support, but also a fresh air circulation system, "he says. "So, any kind of harmful fumes that the materials of the combination give off gases will eventually be expelled from the suit and will not be allowed to infect and cause further damage."

The suit is now positioned with the left leg slightly forward, as if she was about to make that first little step for the man. The pose gives the impression that the combination is alive, Collum says.

"Often we see space suits or flight suits or any type of uniform standing right there, look straight, arms at the sides, just anonymous, without any features "he says. "But the costume really has a vibe to it, a real presence."

The thighs, knees and boots of the space suit are stained with lunar dust.

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The thighs, knees and boots of the space suit are stained with lunar dust.

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And the costume always seems to have gone from the moon to the back. While your eyes are sweeping your eyes – below the red metal ring where the helmet is screwed, under the American flag on the shoulder, below the eagle on the Apollo mission patch 11 and below where the name of Armstrong is sewn – the white fabric becomes progressively gray. The thighs, knees and boots are stained with lunar dust.

"When people see it and they know where it was and what it did and who carried it," he says. "It's really such a powerful experience."

In 1994, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his walk through this dust, Armstrong wrote a letter to the team that created his spacesuit. He commented on the function and fashion of the costume. He joked that it was successful, partly because he concealed his "ugly occupant" from sight. His true beauty, he wrote, "is that it worked, it was difficult, reliable and almost cuddly, to all of you who did all that … thank you and congratulations."


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