Only a woman who has spent 25 years at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) could describe the manned space program as “government employees traveling on government time using government equipment.” Or observe that we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon without duct tape and Velcro. Or call her favorite spacesuit by its first name, the “Jack” (for Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt).
Amanda Young, who will retire at the end of the month, took a somewhat fragmented set of spacesuits, helmets, boots, and gloves, with little documentation and no parameters for their care, and transformed them into an organized collection of historically important artifacts. Highlights of the collection are the “flown” and developmental suits, which, she says, “show how we got from there to here.” It took 10 years to organize and catalogue what eventually became more than 1,000 spacesuits, pressure suits, and components (gloves, boots, and helmets), including most of the spacesuits worn during the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury missions. Since then her focus has primarily been on spacesuit preservation, storage, and display.
"The problem with displaying spacesuits is that they’re very heavy, fragile, and hard to move,” says Young. “Moreover, the number of suits available to lend has shrunk because of their condition, and very few venues outside of NASM can meet our stringent humidity, temperature, and light requirements.” The suits aren’t fragile because they’ve been to space and back, she explains, but because they’re made of a variety of natural and man-made materials–like copper, rubber, and plastics–that “don’t play nicely together” and so deteriorate at an alarming rate.
The challenges of traveling spacesuits shaped the upcoming exhibition Suited for Space, a collaboration between SITES and NASM that begins its national tour in April 2011. Because the collection cannot travel, it has been thoroughly photographed, providing amazing and detailed pictures of pressure-suit design and development, the early pressure suits, those from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, advanced extra-vehicular suits, and those designed for the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. Currently some of the suits are being x-rayed—a process that requires about 35 sheets of x-ray film per suit.
“You can’t pull a suit apart to see what's going on inside,” says Young. “You can either look down its neck with a flashlight or you can x-ray it. With the x-ray images, works of art themselves, you can see the ball bearings, the fibers, the sewing holes, and the rubber convoluted joints at the elbows, thighs, and knees that enabled the astronaut to walk.”
The striking photographs by Mark Avino, NASM’s chief of photographic services, with x-rays by Ron Cunningham of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, with Avino, are presented in Young’s just-published book, Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection (powerHouse Books, 2009). The traveling exhibition Suited for Space includes these amazing images—many life size—along with informative text and some small objects.
—Ann Carper, SITES editor