I was a little stressed when Bobby announced that he wanted to do a handmade week. When it comes to aeronautics, handmade is probably the last word that comes to mind. Everything that goes into space is meticulously constructed by machine – if a measurement is off by a hundredth of an inch it could mean disaster. But there is one thing that is made by hand. Spacesuits.
“When she arrived at [the International Latex Corporation (ILC)]’s spacesuit plant in 1965 or 1966, likely transferred from making bras, girdles, or diaper covers for Playtex, a new seamstress would be greeted by her shop-floor supervisor, and ‘taught to sew again from scratch.”
This account opens Nicholas de Monchaux’s narrative of the handmade suit in his Fashioning Apollo – Alex and I have mentioned his writing several times on Space Suit of the Week as it is the quintessential narrative of the evolution of the modern space suit. In fact, his work is the foundation of a historically accurate space suit film that Warner Bros. is currently developing.
The Apollo boys were fashioned in custom outfits made by a very select group of talented ladies. NASA standards pushed the limits of not only the equipment that was used at the ILC, but the limits of the seamstresses’ technique. There was less than a sixty-forth of an inch tolerance in only one direction of the seam, a sixty-forth of an inch is smaller than the average needles’ eye. While this required unprecedented precision, the seamstresses were not allowed traditional tools to help with their accuracy such as pins and other temporary fasteners for fear that they could be forgotten to be removed upon completion.
An Apollo space suit is approximately 3/16” thick and comprised of twenty-one layers of material. The most talented seamstresses could sew these multiple layers of challenging and hair thin fabrics such as latex, Mylar, Dacron and Kapton with only her fingertips to guide her construction.
Each Apollo mission required at least 15 suits to support the mission. Each member of the three part crew has three suits custom tailored to their exact measurement – there was one respectively created for flight, training and as a flight back-up. In addition, there was a three man back up crew that each had two suits constructed for them.
The above two factors makes the effort seem daunting. Even more so, the astronaut corps during the Apollo era was comprised of between 25 and 27 astronauts. It only seems fitting that the most iconic images of the space exploration, that of Buzz, Neil and the gang bouncing on lunar soil in their marshmallow white couture suits, are an exemplary showcase of craftsmanship.