Preserving history to inspire the future: Saving Neil Armstrong’s iconic Apollo 11 spacesuit

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit had been hidden from public view for the last 13 years at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Thanks to conservators, various museum staff teams and public benefactors, the iconic piece of spaceflight lore will be enjoyed for generations to come from the state-of-the-art preservation effort.

In 2015, the museum launched a crowdfunding campaign to digitize, conserve and re-display Armstrong’s suit for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The suit had been on display since 2006 before museum staff decided to take it behind closed doors to examine it more in-depth.

National Air & Space Museum Objects Conservator Lisa Young, who specializes in spacesuit preservation, said Armstrong’s lunar suit was removed to make sure the suit would be preserved and in good condition for the 50th anniversary that was celebrated in July 2019.

“The public is still really interested and I think it’s been long enough that they appreciate (Armstrong’s) suit as a historical object and really appreciate it for what it is,” Young said in an interview with States of Life. “I think the public also appreciates the engineering it took to get those humans on the moon for the first time, and what it’s going to take to go back.”

Image Provided by the National Air and Space Museum

Young conducted research in the late 90s on the spacesuit collection, of which the museum has over 200, and found some materials in the suits were starting to break down due to age-related issues — NASA may have plans for everything, but preserving the suits took a back seat to mission success as most materials in the suits were designed for one-time uses.

The conservation of the suit included the creation of a detailed map through the imaging of x- rays, CT scanning and UV photography, as well as years of research.

For NASA’s Apollo program, the suits pose greater challenges to conservators with the suits still containing lunar dust.

Armstrong’s suit had only a small amount of dust due to the fact he and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spent just 21 hours on the moon, compared to Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt calling the lunar surface home for about 75 hours — more than there days.

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“The dust is very angular and sharp because there’s no atmosphere on the Moon so it embeds itself into the fibers of the fabric,” Young said. “A lot of the discoloration you see is the dust embedded mostly on the knees down on the suits.”

The interior layers of Armstrong’s suit, specifically the rubber bladders used to maintain pressure levels, posed a major challenge for Young and other conservators since the bladders only had a shelf life of around six months followed by the continual  off-gassing of byproducts that harm the integrity of the suit.

Young said the team was able to slow down the process by controlling the environment around the suit, from its display case to a “very extensive ventilation system” designed to keep the harmful gases away from other materials. The case replicates the conditions of climate-controlled storage by tightly controlling temperature, lighting, relative humidity and ventilation. A mannequin was created specifically for this suit, using Armstrong’s actual measurements, and designed to allow air circulation from the case through the mannequin system and into the suit.

Armstrong Space Suit (A19730040000) Mannequin
Image Provided by the National Air and Space Museum

“We are fighting time and chemistry here and we are looking for ways to best preserve those pieces intact,” Young said. “We do that through preventive measures where we control the amount of handling of the suit and the environment. A lot of it is related to those exterior factors and the rubber will go through its normal processes without us stopping it.”

The display takes one small step outside the norm of how spacesuits are displayed in that its gloves and helmet are positioned to give the appearance the suit is in one piece, as opposed to just the suit without any of the attachments — a lifeless shell devoid of  hands and a head.

“We made a decision to have it look a little bit more lifelike and we’ve done something we haven’t done in the past where people have criticized that the past displays looked static,” Young said. “You see some things in exhibits that have no liveliness or no form, so we did alter the suit from our usual mannequin systems. We work with the designers and curators and teams to build what we think would be the best. It’s not straight science from our perspective that gets it out on display.”

The new display isn’t compromising the integrity of the suit, placing the suit in a pose with one arm slightly raised and one of the legs extended to show one of the feet stepping forward.

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“We’ve had a lot of comments on that and people really like it,” Young said. “We created a system where they are in place so they look like they should be there and completely together but there’s still space and we didn’t hook them back on. They really commented on that too because for years we said, ‘We are not putting the helmet and gloves back on, we don’t care what the public wants because it’s what is best for the suit.’ But I think through the time we have and the expertise of our team and just our general collective experience, we were able to achieve all of this for this display.”

During her time working on the Armstrong suit, Young said she and others were aware of the historical significance the object held. Armstrong’s family members and even the seamstresses who stitched it together in 1969 got behind-the-scenes glimpses at preserving a piece of history they were so closely tied to.

“You meet these people where that history has much more meaning emotionally, but of course you get emotional yourself and it brings up a lot of feelings,” Young said. “You are doing this for everyone else and there’s a lot of pressure there. A lot of people instead of appreciating the display, voiced appreciation for the work we have done to get it back on display. You can see how much it meant to people.”

Young’s next task is preserving Alan Shepard’s Mercury-era suit the will be placed in the upcoming Apollo gallery. In 1961, Shepard became the first American in space before setting foot on the Moon in 1971. Young is also running the teams of people helping renovate the museum.

“I am excited to start the Mercury suits, I don’t think I have actually fully worked on entire suit,” Young said. “I’ve worked on gloves, helmets and boots and things. It’s going to present a lot more difficult challenges because they are completely different type of pressure suits.”

Lisa Young has been an objects conservator at the National Air and Space Museum since 2009. She earned her B.Sc. (Honors) in conservation at the University of Wales, Cardiff. She has worked at the Museum since 1997, where she conducted primary research on the degradation and preservation of spacesuits and related materials. From 1999 to 2006 she served as the project conservator to the Save America’s Treasures Project, Saving Threatened Artifacts from the Apollo Era. On the project, Young consulted on the conservation of the Saturn V rocket assembly in Houston, Texas, and performed a technical and condition survey on over 200 spacesuits in the National collection.  She has treated a variety of aerospace materials; written and published articles; and presented information to professionals, school groups, and the public. In 2015, Young collaborated with colleagues from the National Air and Space Museum in its first Kickstarter campaign to conserve, display, and digitize Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit for the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2019. Her research interests are spacesuit construction and materials; conservation treatment and analysis of polymers and aluminum alloys; and public outreach in conservation. She is currently the outreach chair for Washington Conservation Guild and served as president from 2005 to 2007. She has been a fellow of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works since 2016.

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