Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit – now restored and in an exhibition marking 50 years since the Moon landing – shaped the future of technology
How much did the Apollo 11 suit cost?
In today’s money, around $700,000 (£500,000) – which was also the amount raised by a Kickstarter campaign run by the Smithsonian to fund the restoration of Armstrong’s suit. The AL7 spacesuit, custom-made for astronauts Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, was worn during their 151-minute moonwalk on 20 July 1969.
The spec must have been extraordinary
Absolutely. This amazing piece of kit was not just a garment, but functioned almost as a spacecraft. Known as an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), it had to protect the astronauts from the Moon’s extreme climate (which veers from -170˚C to +120˚C) and was constructed from layer upon layer of neoprene rubber and metalised polyester film.
What was different about this suit?
In many ways it was pretty similar to previous suits – each was bespoke and sewn by hand – but the outer layer was new. In 1967, the Apollo 1 caught fire during a ground test, killing three astronauts. After that, NASA insisted suits should also be fireproof.
How did they manage that?
With Beta cloth, a fire-resistant fabric made from Teflon-coated glass microfibres. The International Latex Corporation, which won the contract to make the suits, also called in engineers from its Playtex bra subsidiary to create special joints that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin move more freely.
Was it really ‘one giant leap for mankind’?
The New Scientist didn’t think so at the time. In its report, it harrumphed that Apollo 11 was “of no greater moment than just peering into the high recesses of the trapeze act in the Big Top at a circus”. (It has since apologised.) To develop its navigation systems, Nasa ordered a million micro-electronic components from a company called Fairchild, effectively securing its future. Fairchild has since been instrumental in developing calculators, computers and the world wide web.
Force of gravity
As Armstrong walked on the Moon, his spacesuit was not weightless. Even with the Moon’s reduced gravity, it weighed 13.6kg – compared with 80kg on Earth.
It was designed to last six months but, half a century on, it has been patched up and preserved to go on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. The last word on the suit ought to come from Armstrong himself. As he wrote in a letter of thanks to NASA in 1994: “Its true beauty was that it worked.”