When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in July 1969, he wore a spacesuit fashioned by Playtex, the bra and girdle company. Playtex seamstresses assembled all the Apollo suits from 21 layers of flexible fabric, latex and reinforcements — a design that won out over the armorlike suits of interlocking components that military-industrial contractors were offering.
In 21 chapters, one for each layer, de Monchaux, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, makes the case that spacesuit design reflected changing ideas at the time about architecture, fashion and popular culture.
Many of the chapters meander from the spacesuit’s story, but the pace picks up when de Monchaux focuses on Playtex’s struggle to convince NASA to accept its softer, nontraditional design. Other companies in the late 1950s had taken a different tack — proposing to modify the human body to allow for space exploration. But “again and again, the human body resisted such encroachments,” the author contends.
Each Apollo suit was custom-fitted, so every alteration required a new fitting. When astronauts complained about rough interior surfaces, Playtex added a layer of fuzzy girdle liner. In the end, the comfort and ease of movement provided by the suits won NASA over.
As well as the astronauts. When astronauts come to Washington, D.C., de Monchaux notes, they flock not to the Smithsonian’s vast Air and Space Museum, but to a warehouse in suburban Maryland. There they view what was once their second skin: the surviving Apollo spacesuits.
MIT Press, 2011, 250 p., $34.95.