The True Story Of The First Suit On The Moon
Say what you will about Ryan Gosling. The man knows how to wear a suit. His penchant for slick Gucci suits on the red carpet and retro-hipster threads in films like La La Land, Crazy, Stupid Love, and Gangster Squad have made him a fashion icon as well as a meme-worthy sex symbol. In First Man, opening October 12, Gosling steps into one of the most famous suits in history: The A7-L, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk spacesuit.
A couture house didn’t design the A7-L. It wasn’t even the work of NASA scientists or the military-industrial complex. The bra and girdle maker Playtex, a subsidiary of the International Latex Corporation, conceived and constructed it from scratch. That makes a fitting origin story for a suit that had to be comfortable as well as functional. It needed to allow enough mobility for Armstrong to take not just “one small step” but also gather soil samples and conduct scientific experiments.
When Christian Dior launched his ultrafeminine “New Look” in 1947, he famously declared: “There can be no fashion without foundation.” After suffering through World War II in dowdy coveralls, Utility garments, and “Make Do and Mend” hand-me-downs, women embraced petticoats, corsets, waspies, and girdles. But they insisted on comfort. That meant using high-tech, manmade textiles rather than the steel and whalebone of previous generations of shapewear. The bullet bras and merry widows of the 1950s were marvels of structural engineering. Canadian designers invented the Wonderbra in 1961. To clothe the Apollo 11 astronauts, NASA turned to the forefront of design technology and material science: The American underwear industry.
Seamstresses seconded from the Playtex assembly line used “girdle-dipping techniques to produce convoluted joints” and “couture techniques to fuse disparate layers at 64 stitches to the inch,” wrote Nicholas de Monchaux in ‘Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo’. Playtex made most of the A7-L’s 21 thin layers from materials that could be found in any woman’s lingerie drawer: Nylon, Lycra, Neoprene, Dacron. Unlike underwear, however, the suit had to stand up to extreme heat and cold, ultraviolet radiation, and projectile micrometeorites, necessitating additional layers of reflective and flame-resistant Mylar, Kapton, and Teflon.
The suit was, effectively, a wearable spacecraft, as Armstrong noted in a letter of appreciation he sent to NASA on the 25thanniversary of his spacewalk. The A7-L had “turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history,” Armstrong wrote. “That was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic.” With typical self-deprecating humor, the astronaut added: “Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant.”
Of course, it’s not Armstrong in the famous picture of an astronaut planting an American flag on the moon. That’s the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin. Armstrong held the camera, so the only image of Armstrong wearing his suit on the moon is the one reflected in Aldrin’s mirrored visor. Aldrin, not Armstrong, served as the model for MTV’s Video Music Award statuette. The designer of the “Moonman” was inspired by the idea of MTV as a pioneer, staking a claim to the next big thing in music.
Aldrin described the physical sensation of wearing the A7-L. Though the helmet looks enormous, it offered a “rather limited field of vision.” In addition, he said, “the weight of the backpack tends to pull you backward, and you must consciously lean forward just a little to compensate”. He called this posture “tired ape.” Aldrin also recalled the distinct odor of lunar dust: “pungent, like gunpowder of spent cap-pistol caps. We carted a fair amount of lunar dust back inside the vehicle with us . . . on our suits and boots.”
Designed to last six months, Armstrong’s 80-pound suit is currently undergoing vital conservation work at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in anticipation of the moonwalk’s 50th anniversary. At the moment, First Man is the closest you’ll get to the actual suit, which will go back on display next year. The Smithsonian’s first-ever Kickstarter campaign funded the project. In July 2015, “Reboot the Suit” raised half a million dollars in just four days—the same time it took the Apollo 11 crew to go to the moon and back.