By Bill Ayrey, author of Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit
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It was just over a year ago that we celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon. That “one small step,” along with several other successful Apollo missions to the moon, helped establish the United States as a leader in technology. Even as we developed the new rockets, tools, computers, and supporting software to get us there and back, one of the most significant pieces of supporting hardware was being manufactured by a relatively small company using sewing machines that were in many cases 40 years old at the time. Behind these machines sat women who were taught the sewing trade by their mothers. These talented women were responsible for sewing the Apollo space suits that would keep the astronauts alive on the lunar surface. When we look back at the famous images of Neil, Buzz, and the other 10 astronauts that strolled upon the moon, it’s not the astronaut you see, but rather, the space suits made by ILC Industries of Dover, Delaware, that protected them.
Developing the Apollo suit was a great challenge. Only one purposely built space suit existed in 1962 when President John Kennedy declared that we would send a man to the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. Other companies hoped their modified pressure suits designed for high altitude aircraft would win the contest for the moon landings, but the engineers of ILC had seen the future coming, and started work on a fully functioning space suit beginning in 1955. As bright as these engineers were, however, they had to depend on the women who could take their ideas and make them reality by stitching pieces of fabric together until a completed space suit came out on the other side of the sewing needle. And these suits had to be dependable because human lives were at stake. In a written message left for the women of ILC, one of the Apollo astronauts wrote, “Please sew straight and careful, because I’d hate to have a tear in my pants on the moon.”
It was a man’s world in the 1960s when it came to the technical jobs, and not just at ILC Industries but across all companies. Job advertisements that were placed by ILC in the 1960s blatantly stated that they were looking for men to fill the engineering ranks. One such ad stated, “to be specific, we need men with the above qualifications to fill the career openings below.” Today ILC employs many women in engineering positions as well, including the Vice President and Division Manager for Space Systems as well as the Director of Engineering for the Space Systems division.
When NASA opened the contest for the Apollo space suit, several companies entered the competition including one large aerospace organization whose employee count numbered in the thousands. This was typical of the contractors who bid on the many Apollo contracts and NASA expected as much since they desired the rigor and experience these companies brought with them. ILC Industries, on the other hand, was known as the industrial division of Playtex, manufacturer of bras and girdles. With just a few great engineers and sewers, this division faced an uphill challenge to win and keep the contract. They did win the initial Apollo contest in 1962 because their entry into the competition was the most mobile and had the best chance of being further developed to become the space suit that NASA and the astronauts wanted. What soon followed, however, would turn into the proverbial David and Goliath story and provides an interesting look into the challenges NASA faced in finally getting the suits they wanted.
As a 41-year employee of ILC Dover, the successor of ILC Industries, I was fortunate to work with many of the Apollo veterans when I started there in 1977 and went on to become responsible for testing the space suits used throughout the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs. I never lost respect for what the ILC engineers and production folks did on a daily basis while designing and manufacturing these suits. Many years ago, when I came to truly understand the challenges that ILC Industries and the Apollo suit veterans faced on a daily basis, I knew that this story had to be told. In addition, in my book I have included a significant amount of technical details of the Apollo suit for future generations to reference. It was old technology by today’s standards, but it provides a good technical foundation for how space suits work and the challenges of designing and building them.
Bill Ayrey, author of Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit, was the manager of ILC Dover’s Test Laboratory when he retired in 2019 after forty years of service. For much of his time there, he was responsible for testing the space suits the company made for NASA’s space shuttles and the International Space Station. He spent more than 140 hours pressurized in the Space Shuttle EVA suit, testing the many components, during its years of development. In his early years at ILC, he worked closely with veterans of the company who designed the Apollo space suits. He has also collected thousands of original documents related to the development and production of the Apollo suits. Over the past twenty years, he has assisted staff at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in their quest to understand and preserve the Apollo suits in their collection.