Getting Personal with History

Slipping on white cotton gloves, Gallagher slid a blue board paper honeycomb tray from one of the racks in the “Bally Box,” a climate-controlled storage unit that houses the spacesuits. “Every part of each Apollo spacesuit was made uniquely for an astronaut. From the helmets to the boots—each was made in triplicate,” Gallagher explained. “Three exact copies of all their components were made—one for training, one for backup, and the one worn on mission.”

Gallagher picked up a helmet, its gold visor glowing. She explained that the components of the lunar suits—the suits worn on the moonwalks—were composed of this extra-vehicular helmet, a pressure helmet, a pair of extra-vehicular gloves, a pair of intra-vehicular gloves, and a pair of lunar boots. Today’s shuttle suits have interchangeable parts and are not made on an individual basis as during the Apollo program. The only components still created specifically for each astronaut are the intra-vehicular gloves. “That is the reason why the Apollo suits were chosen to be one of America’s Treasures,” said Gallagher. The museum has all 12 of the lunar suits. Those worn by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Eugene Cernan are part of the permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall. “These suits will never go out on loan,” Gallagher explained. “They will remain at the museum or be kept here for storage, stabilization, and research.”

Gallagher pulled out one of the specially designed trays that lined the storage room. “These trays were designed to reduce handling and the stress on the materials,” she said. “Lunar suits weigh 65 to 75 pounds. They are bulky and would take two or three people to handle them. The arms flail; they bend in different places.” One of Gallagher’s responsibilities has been to construct special mannequins for the suits. She showed the materials that well-meaning curators had used in some of the suits that had been loaned out. Some wire forms had been covered with polyurethane foam that deteriorated and adhered to the interior of extra-vehicular gloves. “These wires can’t be removed until the foam has completely deteriorated,” Gallagher said. Not long ago, curators and exhibit designers used all kinds of materials to display, store, or ship spacesuits. “The mentality of museums is truly changing now; people are starting to understand that they need to practice preventative conservation so that they will have something to display 50 years from now.”

Gallagher gently handled the suit worn by Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt. “This is the best suit in the collection,” she said. The air bladders that lined the suits in later missions were made with a special anti-oxidant that helped preserve the rubber, she explained. Then she got excited and passed her hand just above the suit. “All of this gray dirt is lunar dust,” she said. “The real deal!” Schmitt was the only scientist on the Apollo missions, she explained. “He was a geologist, and it’s obvious that he liked playing in the dirt.” Gallagher grinned. “All his stuff is filthy—but in fantastic condition!”

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Samantha Snell Gallagher has constructed special mannequins for the safe display of the Apollo spacesuits.

The spacesuits are stored on trays designed to minimize handling during the preservation process.