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Last Shot: Nicholas de Monchaux

How latex bra technology created the Apollo spacesuit

On July 20th 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plodded onto the moon’s craggy surface wearing A7L spacesuits made by Playtex, the famed manufacturer of ladies’ underthings. It was a triumph for an artfully rag-tag team of seamstresses and a TV repair man over the Goliath that was the Hamilton Standard / United Aircraft Conglomerate. In his book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, architect and urbanist Nicholas de Monchaux details the heroic battle between the soft, pragmatic approach of Playtex versus the sleekly cybernetic, austere proposals coming out of the American military-industrial complex. De Monchaux discusses the failure of Hamilton Standard’s bionic 1963 AX1H model, photographed here during a mobility test: 

“The spacesuit is silver, and what’s interesting is this tug between the world of fashion and the world of technology. The first prototypes were green because they were developed by the military, but when a competing spacesuit made the cover of Collier’s magazine in 1953 because the khaki coloured suit didn’t appear futuristic enough to the editors, they said that they would make it silver. It was announced that the whole purpose was that it was for scientific reasons to repel radiation, but it was actually just making it look space-age.

In the mid 1960s the Gemini astronauts did their first spacewalk. Having a silver mirrored suit when you’re outside the spacecraft and exposed to the unfiltered rays of the sun is a bit like going out into bright sunlight wearing a disco ball: it’s a bad idea. After that the spacesuit became white, so then of course, from the high- fashion world of people like Courréges and Cardin to Buck Rogers toys, the space-age aesthetic shifted to white.

The AX1H suit itself was awkward. The fundamental problem is that it’s blown up to much higher than the pressure of a basketball and it has a rubber bladder, so like a basketball it wants to be round and hard. It wasn’t this suit but the next model, the AX2H, about which an astronaut pronounced, ‘I will not go to the moon in that suit.’ The shoulders grew so wide over testing that an astronaut wearing one on the moon wouldn’t have been able to fit back into the lunar capsule. The company that produced the best suit, the International Latex Corporation (ILC, better-known by its consumer brand, Playtex), was forced to shotgun marry as a sub- contractor to Hamilton Standard because at this stage Nasa didn’t trust it to be able to handle the bureaucratic atmosphere of the space programme. In 1965 Hamilton got ILC fired. ILC was the underdog, but its suit was so much better than the others that it ended up winning the prime contract.

Playtex’s founder, Russian Abram Spanel, started out selling latex girdles by mail order, but during World War II latex became a protected commodity and the company almost went under, so Spanel tried R&D efforts in a military-industrial vein on a very small scale. His chief research scientist was Leonard Shepard, who had been Spanel’s television repairman; it wasn’t exactly PhD-grade stuff. Early in the 1960s Shepard started work on how the fundamental technology behind the bras, which was this nylon lingerie- fabric embedded in a latex skin, could add layers of functionality to the vinyl suit. The final suit had 21 different layers, like a Russian doll, sewn by master craftsmen from the girdle assembly line who could sew the one-sixty-fourth-of- an-inch tolerance without puncturing the latex pressure bladder. It’s really a couture object. These guys, a TV repair man and a sewing machine salesman, ended up being the head engineers of the most sensitive part of the whole Apollo programme – the equipment charged with keeping astronauts alive at their very farthest distance from Earth, alone on the moon’s surface.”

By Jacqueline Marcus

Photo courtesy of Nasa