Friday, March 25, 2011

Spacesuit: How Playtex Engineered An Iconic Piece of Space Technology

I was listening to NPR's Science Friday during lunch today and they had a great segment on the history of the Spacesuit used for the Apollo missions. It turns out that the suit was made by Playtex, the same company noted for their bras.

The discussion talks about the process of engineering the suit and the amazing technical aspects of the suit. But perhaps equally or more interesting, is the story of the designs that weren't used and how Playtex was not really who the engineers at NASA wanted to work with. Monchaux talks about how NASA engineers wanted to work with engineers, not people who made underwear, to craft this one-person spacecraft. And yet, Playtex's innovation and expertise in designing for humans won out. This looks like a great story about design and engineering.

Here's a link to the Science Friday segment pod cast. For fun, I've also embedded a video that they put together that features many of the suits that were considered but weren't used. Enjoy!

Here's from Amazon's description of the book:
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface in July of 1969, they wore spacesuits made by Playtex: twenty-one layers of fabric, each with a distinct yet interrelated function, custom-sewn for them by seamstresses whose usual work was fashioning bras and girdles. This book is the story of those spacesuits. It is a story of the Playtex Corporation’s triumph over the military-industrial complex—a victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics.

Playtex’s spacesuit went up against hard armor-like spacesuits designed by military contractors and favored by NASA’s engineers. It was only when those suits failed—when traditional engineering firms could not integrate the body into mission requirements—that Playtex, with its intimate expertise, got the job. In Spacesuit, Nicholas de Monchaux tells the story of the twenty-one-layer spacesuit in twenty-one chapters addressing twenty-one topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the twentieth century. He touches, among other things, on eighteenth-century androids, Christian Dior’s New Look, Atlas missiles, cybernetics and cyborgs, latex, JFK's carefully cultivated image, the CBS lunar broadcast soundstage, NASA’s Mission Control, and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning. The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario.

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