Learning the Jargon — Understanding
the Technology

“The suits are made of some very strong materials—Teflon-coated beta-cloth, Kapton, and rubber-impregnated nylon, to name a few,” Gallagher said. “Each spacesuit is composed of 22 to 26 layers of material. Each of these layers had to work together to keep the astronaut alive while in space. Now these materials work against each other and speed the process of deterioration.” In her snug workspace—part office, part laboratory—she has surveyed and examined nine of the Apollo suits and components.

And, much to the surprise of some young visitors to the National Air and Space Museum, she became part of the moonscape to assess the three suits on display there.

“The process of this evaluation and treatment is quite time consuming,” Gallagher said. “Most of our attention is focused on finding the answers to the degradation of the rubber components and plasticized polyvinyl chloride components, and also on the corrosion of metal fasteners and anodized aluminum,” she said. “The major goal of this project is to identify these problem areas, stabilize them for the short term, and determine what can be done to arrest the source of deterioration,” she explained.

Gallagher works with an SAT advisory group: experts from NASA, ILC Dover, the Kansas Cosmosphere, Hamilton Sundstrand, the David Clark Co., the National Museum of Denmark, and other industry and research organizations. She processes the results of their analysis, including FTIR (Fourier-transform infrared), SEM (scanning electron microscope) and CAT scans. “These suits are historically significant objects, and they are too fragile to take apart,” Gallagher said. “The tests will help to answer some of the many questions regarding the suits and what can be done to ensure their longevity. The end results will benefit the suits and provide important conservation information to other museums.”

The project has received considerable attention; there have been articles in the New York Times, Plastics News, Science News, Focus magazine, Dallas Morning News, and Discover magazine. Gallagher and her colleagues have appeared on the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel. “Any museum artifact is special, but these suits are invaluable,” Gallagher said. The spacesuits in the NASM collection not only represent great advances in aerospace technology but also are significant for the historical role they have played in our nation’s exploration of space.

The master’s classes that I took in preventative conservation and collections management at George Washington University helped me understand the why behind the treatment and handling of artifacts,” said Gallagher. “They helped me think as a conservator. Thinking that way, I see that the suits are in fragile condition and should not be put on display. But if
I think like a museum curator, I see the need to make these objects available so that the general public can see and enjoy them.”

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Many of Garber Facility’s huge metal buildings are used for storage of aircraft, spacecraft, and many other artifacts. Restoration projects range from kites to spacecraft.