City Paper is not for tourists
The knees of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit are covered in moon dust.
On July 20, 1969, astronauts of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission—Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—landed on the moon as Michael Collins orbited above. When Armstrong later walked on its surface for more than two hours, lunar dust dug deep into the fibers of his suit.
“Lunar dust is very angular and sharp and abrasive,” says Lisa Young, an objects conservator at the National Air and Space Museum. “So it’s actually embedded in the fibers of the suit now. It’s not going to brush off.”
The dust remains there 50 years later, as the National Air and Space Museum presents Armstrong’s suit in its full glory for the first time in 13 years. While the museum intends for the suit’s home to be Destination Moon, a new display set to be completed in 2022, the staff knew they had to bring the suit back to public view to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this Saturday. It was officially unveiled Tuesday, July 16, 50 years after the Apollo 11 crew departed Florida’s Kennedy Space Center atop a Saturn V rocket. Among the VIPs in attendance were Vice President Mike Pence, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, former NASA chief scientist and current John and Adrienne Mars director at the museum Ellen Stofan, and members of the Armstrong family, including his eldest son, Rick.
The last human lunar landing occurred in 1972, with the Apollo 17 mission. Bridenstine says that NASA plans to return to the moon by 2024, but Apollo 11 may always be considered “humanity’s highest achievement,” according to Stofan. The Armstrong spacesuit is the physical embodiment of that achievement.
The suit has been to the moon and back, and as a result, it’s coated with evidence of its cosmic adventures. Like the Friendship 7 capsule that took John Glenn into orbit, it’s a tangible symbol of American space exploration.
For Smithsonian conservators, keeping that historic and scientific evidence was key to bringing the suit back to the museum and displaying it in a better way.
“You don’t really train in graduate school for working on spacesuits,” says Young. But she and other conservators are able to use their knowledge of materials and apply that knowledge to the task at hand. “It became obvious to us studying the materials that they were breaking down faster than we anticipated and we would have to do more research to stop that.”
Young’s work to conserve the suit consisted of documentation, research, and interviews with people who built the suit.
“The materials were not designed to last for a very long period of time,” says Cathleen Lewis, a curator in the museum’s space history department. “They were designed to withstand the harshness of outer space, but not so much the harshness of life here on Earth with one gravity, humidity, and cycling temperatures throughout the year.”
The suit’s materials are synthetic, and they go through processes of deterioration according to their chemical composition. The sheer number of materials present makes that degradation more multifaceted.
“The spacesuits are really complicated because they’re made of 21 materials, and they’re layered together to protect the astronauts on the moon,” Young says. “You can’t really separate the materials to actually do your treatment.” Young and her team had to do a CT scan of the suit and look inside at a 3D model of the layers.
X-rays of the suit allowed them to assess what was stable and what was causing problems. The rubber bladder, which kept Armstrong pressurized and lines the interior of the suit, proved to be the most troublesome.
“It’s become very stiff because the rubber has hardened and it has the potential to crack and break,” Young says. “We can’t take that out.”
Taking the suit apart was not an option. “There’s so much history wrapped up in the fact that Neil Armstrong wore it that we’d be very hesitant to do that,” she says. “If it was self-destructing because of this rubber problem, and there was no other way to save the spacesuit, it would mean a very big decision. Every mark on the outside of the suit, even though we could repair some of that, is actually showing evidence from his activities on the moon or when he was in the command module.”
The conservation crew had to figure out how to keep the suit stable and determine, among other things, whether or not it needed to be ventilated.
“The rubber is still slowly degrading over time, releasing acidic gases into the suit, so it’s harming some of the other materials,” Young says. “Our new mannequin actually allows airflow through the suit, and we bring this airflow through the suit to keep these gases from building up.”
The outer section of the suit is made of glass fiber cloth, intended to potentially decrease impact from meteorites on the surface or puncture to the inner layers that kept the astronauts safe. Those layers are pretty much stable, says Young, despite a bit of damage.
Then there is the lunar dust, which Young wanted to preserve in place. “We worked really hard to clean the surfaces of the suit where the lunar dust isn’t, using super tiny vacuums,” she says. “Our challenge is leaving those pieces of history on the object and not removing, repairing, or changing them.”
The team rigorously documented the outside of the suit to make sure that in the future, no one mistakenly removed or disturbed it.
The National Air and Space Museum acquired the suit from NASA in the early 1970s, and displayed it in the Apollo to the Moon gallery until 2006. Young says the museum likes to rotate its collections and give objects a break, and she knew it would take a long time for her team to research what it would take to display the suit correctly again. The Air and Space team also wanted to digitize the suit. A complete 3D model is now viewable online.
A 2015 Kickstarter campaign, which met its $500,000 goal in five days, paid for the conservation treatment, the new mannequin, the display case, and the digitization process. The extra $219,779 raised on Kickstarter will go toward conserving the spacesuit worn by astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space.
“Some people could only give a dollar,” Young says. “When you give money to the Smithsonian, you’re usually a very large donor. So we wanted everybody, like the average citizen, to be able to participate.”
To Young’s delight, a class of students in California collected one dollar each to help conserve the Armstrong suit and sent the money in through their teacher.
The Air and Space Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing all week, as are many other local institutions, from the National Archives to the National Gallery of Art. The museum is even projecting a massive rocket onto the Washington Monument every night through July 20. But the Armstrong suit’s return to display may be the moon landing celebration’s crown jewel.
“It’s not only an artifact and icon of the Space Age, but it’s also a machine that was built by people,” says Lewis.