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Suitable for space: Morning Forum covers evolution of astronaut wear

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Nicholas de Monchaux

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon July 20, 1969. The milestone was the culmination of a vision promoted by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 – that America would be the first country to accomplish the feat.

What does an astronaut wear for such an auspicious occasion?

Nicholas de Monchaux, author and assistant professor of architecture and urban design at UC Berkeley, answered that question for a Morning Forum audience in a Sept. 18 presentation, “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.” De Monchaux detailed the development of a spacesuit that would protect the wearer from potentially hostile elements in space, enable flexibility of movement and endure acceleration and altitude.

French balloonists began attempting to reach high-altitude flight in the mid-1800s, according to de Monchaux. Although several reached 29,000 feet, they experienced extreme oxygen deprivation and paralysis. In 1933, American Wiley Post flew his Lockheed Vega in a business suit, white shirt and tie. Although his specially supercharged engine could briefly fly to 20,000 feet, Post’s body could not, said de Monchaux, adding that Post experienced bleeding from his eyes and nose and extreme headaches.

As pilots and wartime demands pushed the upward boundaries of flight, the challenges of providing pressurized cockpits and suits increased. When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the race to enable human travel in space accelerated.

The morning of Gagarin’s landing, President Kennedy tripled the country’s space budget, de Monchaux said, committing to funding an American mission to land on the moon.

Early attempts to create pressured pilot suits like one made by BF Goodrich in the 1930s included a rubberized suit that was so tight that the pilot had to be cut out of it, the professor noted.

In 1956, a factory owner made a knitted nylon suit 65 pounds lighter than earlier versions that enabled unprecedented mobility when inflated, de Monchaux said. But the facet that caught public attention, he added, was its silver exterior – a “Flash Gordon” space-age perception.

In June 1965, NASA televised astronaut Ed White in a white, high-temperature link-net nylon Gemini suit. Space flight had evolved from science fiction to science fact.

De Monchaux said the most astonishing fact in the spacesuit success story originated in an American industry better known for creating undergarments for adults and diapers for children – Playtex. When its products’ chief component, latex, became essential for military use during World War II, its owner formed a new division, ILC (International Latex Company), that made life rafts and inflatable boats for the Navy in a factory in Dover, Del. After the war ended, its owner funded a continual government research branch. ILC focused on creating pressurized suits to meet mobility requirements in high altitudes.

ILC secured a contract to make suits for the Apollo program in 1962, de Monchaux said. The final Apollo suits incorporate latex and nylon inside the suit and exterior latex on the gloves’ fingertips, allowing tactile feedback, agility and precision, he explained.

Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For more information, visit www.morningforum.com.

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