Authors@Google: Nicholas de Monchaux "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo"

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 07.04.2011

>>Boris: Welcome everybody. Thank you for showing up at another Authors at Google talk.
It is my distinct pleasure today to welcome Nicholas de Monchaux who's a professor at
UC Berkeley, graduate of Yale and Princeton, and he's going to talk today about the design
of the Apollo spacesuit. It's an interesting not only technological story but a design
process story and I think it will reverberate with some designs decisions that we ourselves
have to often make at Google.
So please give a warm welcome to Nicholas.
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Thank you very much Boris. Thanks a lot for having me here today.
I'm just gonna introduce myself a little bit because I'm not actually a professional spacesuit
historian at all and so I think especially in front of an audience like this I think
it's maybe interesting to say just a few words about what I actually spend much of my time
doing and how my interest in this project, this history of the Apollo spacesuit actually
developed out of that.
I'm an architect and urban designer and I spend most of my time thinking about cities
and how we can use technology to make better cities, which is probably not unrelated to
some issues that you guys are thinking about.
This is an exhibit that I have up at the moment at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research
Association or SPUR on Mission between Second and Third. And the exhibit it's a bit dark
but I'll show you I can't resist showing you my Google map browser of the exhibit's material
and the exhibit is of a set of landscape designed for 1600 city owned vacant parcels in San
Francisco that uses computer simulation and modeling to design thermodynamically sustainable
landscapes with low albedo surfaces and storm water retention, and that we calculate could
save the city some billions of dollars in energy and environmental costs.
But that's not what you came here this morning to hear about. So let me get on to the actual
topic of my talk and I'll tell you a little bit at first about how I'm structuring the
talk. The Apollo spacesuit, that is to say this object, was made of 21 different layers
of fabric each with a separate function, each hand stitched by women taken from the bra
and girdle assembly lines at the Playtex Corporation. And the talk today will be assembled much
like the suit itself in 21 different layers or anecdotes dealing with different topics
that add up to make a comprehensive and robust picture of what this object was and why it
was the way it was.
The fundamental question of course is why was this spacesuit soft? This is especially,
this is not just a rhetorical question in fact for most of the 1960's it was assumed
automatically that the clothing that protected astronauts on the surface of the moon would
be made of hard, interlocking layers of fiberglass and aluminum and would resemble very much
the spacecraft and larger infrastructures of the vast Apollo enterprise. And in fact
as I said this turned out not to be the case. The spacesuit that was successfully launched
onto the moon was this 21 layered soft, almost couture sewn assemblage.
This fundamental question is the question I'll try and answer a little bit in the talk
and which the book of course goes into at much greater length.
So before we start talking about spacesuits we need to really understand what space is.
There's a couple of things that make space really interesting in this context. By definition
space it turns out is the environment which we cannot go into without the help of technology.
We are all familiar with the Montgolfier brothers' [inaudible] balloon ascension in the 18th
century. But almost immediately a week later a much more powerful hydrogen balloon was
sent up by a scientist named Jacques Alexandre César Charles and he went to about 18,000
feet in a hydrogen balloon in the 18th century and he complained of intense earaches, cold,
bleeding from the nose and mouth, and he never flew in a balloon again; he was quite chastened.
But this was the first intimation we had that this natural environment that our bodies are
well acclimated to didn't extend infinitely and in fact was very limited.
This is a slide from a 19th century balloon expedition in which the aeronauts found themselves
paralyzed by lack of oxygen. It's a lesson that we didn't, that we kept on learning well
into the 20th century. This is Captain Hawthorne C. Gray who went up to 4,000 feet in a open
balloon gondola in 1927 to explore upper atmospheric effects for the Army. He of course did have
oxygen equipment but that equipment failed and he was paralyzed by the effects of high
altitude and came back to earth as a corpse. I can't help but reference you his citation
for a posthumous distinguished flying cross which said, "No doubt his bravery exceeded
his supply of oxygen."
But suffice to say that the older explorations of the early 20th century came up in fact
with many different definitions of space. For astronomers space starts at about five
million feet of altitude where the atmosphere no longer distorts at all star light; for
aviators space came to begin at about 250,000 feet above the earth where air no longer supports
winged flight; for rocket engineers space begins at 100,000 feet; but for doctors, for
the physicians of the human body, space begins at the lowest definition of all, about 15,000
feet where an ordinary human who's not acclimated needs oxygen in order to survive.
So when we look at the beginning of the 20th century one thing is very important to understand
and that is the newness of all the new looks that came to define the cultural and technological
world in which we came to exist after the Second World War.
The first of these new looks and the most famous was of course to do with fashion; it
was the new look of Christian Dior a phrase coined by the fashion editor Carmel Snow editor
of Harper's Bazaar. It was interesting to this story for a couple of reasons: one it
was the first fashion, that is to say, the first fashion design that was promulgated
almost exclusively by media. It was in the words of Dior, "A bloodless but inky revolution."
It didn't happen so much on the body as in all the different newspapers and media outlets
in which it took place.
The second important point of relevance with the current story is it was also a business
and management revolution. Dior was the first fashion designer to invent the modern couture
system with advice from Stanley Marcus, the proprietor of Neiman Marcus. He turned fashion
into a massive business, a massive organizational enterprise as well as a couture assembly.
And the last point of relevance with our story is that undergirding all of these new looks
especially in fashion in the post-war era was this distinctive devise the girdle which
shaped and gave architecture to women's bodies in a way that wasn't necessarily comfortable
but lined up with the visual and aesthetics of the era.
So from the new look in fashion we come to a different new look: what was called the
new look in defense planning. It was literally so called by Admiral Arthur Radford who was
chair of Eisenhower's Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And the new look in defense planning is something that's very important to understand in the
history of the space race and indeed in the history of 20th century itself. It had to
do with the fact that Eisenhower when he came into office was burdened with the Korean War,
with many more of these ground wars or proxy wars of the Cold War on offer. And he convened
his National Security Council to think deeply about the future of American defense and American
defense spending, and he made a crucial, fateful decision that instead of fighting the Cold
War through ground battles as was the case in Korea he directed that the Cold War would
be fought instead through technology, through developing better and more threatening nuclear
technologies that would establish this tense stalemate that defined the Cold War era. Now
of course he would warn against the effects of the vast military industrial complex that
was the main product of that in the last speech he gave in the Presidency.
But this new look, this is the new look of the bikini tests soon gave way to this new
look. To the attempts to make the highest tech weapon that had heretofore been assembled
which is the intercontinental ballistic missile. And the intercontinental ballistic missile
was first designed by a single company as had every single weapon that the American
defense establishment had constructed up to that point. That company was Convair and the
results of their attempts to design the first American ICBM was disastrous, the things just
kept blowing up and they blew up for all kinds of reasons that could not possibly be anticipated.
These were the most complex mechanisms ever assembled by man and they had all kinds of
crazy problems which would not surprise any engineer. The gyroscope in the guidance system
happened to resonate at the same frequency as the turbo fans and the rocket propulsion
device. All these things which couldn't be anticipated before the launch and which led
to a series of cascading catastrophic failures when these complicated mechanisms were tested.
In response to this came yet another new look: the invention from whole cloth of something
called systems engineering which we're so used to by now that we take for granted but
which itself was a substantial and major innovation of the Cold War. Systems engineering was invented
by the people on the covers of Time Magazine here: Bernard Schriever and Dean Wooldridge
and Simon Ramo, who founded what would later become TRW.
And systems engineering was a system of mathematical, cybernetically inflected virtual relationships
that were designed in the informational centers of these design efforts, control rooms they
were called, in which the organizational structure of a bunch of people designing something was
given explicitly to mirror the physical structure of the thing that they were designing: inputs
and outputs, black boxes, and in order to be able to start to master the complexity
of these vast industrial enterprises.
Interestingly enough of course it was this vast mechanism, this military industrial complex
that Eisenhower warned us of that came to be repurposed into the civilian, ostensibly
civilian National Air and Space Administration. All the rockets on which American astronauts
were launched except for the Saturn V were repurposed nuclear missiles.
Dwight Eisenhower, in as far as I can figure out his only direct design decision that he
ever made while President, directed very particularly the vast complicated architecture of these
ICBM's all made by, each part made by different companies: North American Raytheon, etcetera
would all be whitewashed into a single color and painted only USA so as to give the illusion
of a unitary effort to what was in fact a vastly networked enterprise.
So what about suits?
Well the first ever pressure suit, that is a piece of clothing designed to allow a human
being to exist for long periods at a very high altitude, was also not incidentally the
first one to appear in film or television. The suit worn here, the suit on the left hand
side is a mock up made by the Columbia Pictures scene shop, but the suit on the right is a
real pressure suit and it's worn by, making a cameo appearance in this film called Air
Hawks from 1931, by an aviator by the name of Wiley Post.
Wiley Post was one of a pioneering generation of barn storming pilots who attempted to outdo
each other setting records in order to both compete with each other, but also set the
groundwork for what would later become the civilian aviation industry.
Wiley Post bought his first flying lessons with the money that came from a settlement
from a mining accident where he lost his right eye, but he got a bunch of money from it and
he taught himself to be a pilot and he became this astonishing one-eyed pilot who set the
first, was the first person in fact to fly all the way around the world non-stop landing
of course to refuel, thus beating the record set by the Graf Zeppelin, the giant inflatable,
that had done the same in three weeks by about 14 days.
In an attempt to fly higher and faster, Wiley Post was also the first to discover the jet
stream, this massive superfast stream of air that goes across the country from West to
East. And trying to set an aviation record by flying into the jet stream and using its
power he encountered all the physiological difficulties of aviation encountered by the
first balloon explorers of the upper reaches of the atmosphere. But he had a thought that
was entirely original.
When trying to set these aviation records he decided it would be too cumbersome to try
and pressurize the cabin of his aircraft, the technology to do that in a way that the
aircraft could lift and move didn't exist at the time, but he could make a pressure
vessel the shape of his own body. He called up the B.F. Goodrich Company and asked them
to make quite literally in his own words, "A tire in the shape of a man." A rubber device
in which he could move very slowly and primitively like a basketball inflated pressure vessel
wants to be very stiff. And in this suit he started towards setting the most astonishing
aviation records for fast times across the country that would ever be set in the early
part of the 20th century.
Unfortunately Wiley Post died in a plane crash with Will Rogers who he was piloting around
Alaska to go fishing and the record was never set. But the research that went into the making
of his suit lay dormant until it was picked up much later in our story.
In contrast to the pressure vessel made for Wiley Post this device that would bring an
earthly, a low altitude atmosphere up into high altitude to allow a human being to exist,
the first proposal for how men would walk on the moon was the opposite. It was invented
by these two fellows. Their names are Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline and at the time of
this photograph and at the time of their invention they worked at this place: a 10,000 patient
mental hospital on the outskirts of New York City.
At that mental hospital Nathan Kline, the chap on the right here, was in fact the first
physician in the United States to discover both the first anti-psychotic drug fighting
schizophrenia and the first MAOI inhibitor which was the first major drug against depression.
And as a direct result of Kline's discovery, the early part of the post-war era saw the
vast deinstitutionalization of previously intractable mental patients and thus gave
the two, Nathan Kline was a doctor and Manfred Clynes was actually an analog computer programmer
who worked with him, the sense that if the physiology of the brain could be so readily
controlled with drugs in these revolutionary, what was called the new look in psychiatry
at the time, could be accomplished then why not the entire remaking of the human body
to travel into space?
To describe this concept which the two presented to the Air Force in 1958 they invented a new
word: the word is cyborg, cybernetic organism, a human body controlled and manipulated by
the insertion of various chemical and mechanical mechanisms. And for several years in the late
50's and early 1960's this was assumed to be a viable and indeed most attractive option
for how to get human beings to operate in space.
United Aircraft was commissioned to produce a vast study of how this thing might be accomplished
and it was only when various other exigencies of the space race, which I'll talk about in
a moment, came into place that the concept was abandoned.
To talk about a very different kind of body it's about time that I presented to you the
history of this particular company: the Playtex Bra and Girdle Company that was in the end
to create the clothing worn on the surface of the moon. In describing his new look Christian
Dior himself had said, "Without foundations there can be no fashion." And these foundations,
the most popular and successful foundation garments of the post-war era, were made by
the company Playtex.
Playtex had been founded by a chap named Abram Spanel from Rochester, New York who had made
his first fortune selling rubber impregnated garment storage bags that could be vacuumed
out with the new vacuum cleaners that were being popular. He turned this fortune into
another business making diaper covers for babies from which the name Playtex came. And
the reason he made diaper covers for babies is that latex had a habit at the time of splitting
and so he couldn't make garments for adults because the garments might suddenly decide
to dissolve at any moment.
But in the late 1930's Spanel figured out a way to make latex durable enough to make,
replacing the fabric and whale bone corsets of the time with rubber girdles, what he called
"the living girdle" since it was made from a living material. In the post-war era of
course Playtex became vastly popular, vastly successful as a company. Its headquarters
were in the Empire State Building. Spanel moved into Drumthwacket, the mansion that
he would donate to become the New Jersey Governor's mansion.
But during the Second World War the company almost went broke because it had no government
contracts and latex was judged to be a protected material. So to safeguard the future of his
company after the Second World War Spanel funded out of his own pocket a research division
that could work on potential government applications of Playtex's technology. As chief executive
of this research division Spanel appointed a man whose technical and engineering skills
he respected enormously, that is to say his television repairman, a guy named Lenny Shepard
who was to become the engineering head of the Apollo spacesuit project later on the
20th century.
So what happened to derail the cyborg concept and to start to derail these military industrial
utopian imaginings of how man might go into space and start to put enough pressure on
the process that something really unexpected like the commissioning of Playtex could happen?
What's happened of course is this: according to a statement released by the Soviet Union's
TASS News Service on April 12, 1961, "After the successful completion of the planned investigations
and of the flight program the Soviet spaceship Vostok made a safe landing at the predetermined
place. The pilot cosmonaut Major Gagarin made the following statement, 'I beg to report
to the party, to the government, and to Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev personally that the
landing was normal, that I am feeling well, and have sustained no injuries or disturbances'."
What the report failed to own up to was a fact that was in fact was covered up by the
Soviet authorities until the 1980's which is that Gagarin did not land in his spacecraft
at all. Russian spacecraft were sufficiently, the geopolitics of the time meant that Russian,
Soviet spacecraft unlike American spacecrafts, could not land in the oceans controlled by
American Navies but instead had to land in the vast plains of Kazakhstan in Siberia.
The retro rockets that were designed to slow these capsules enough so that they would not
produce a giant crater in the flat plains of Siberia were judged to be sufficiently
unreliable at the time of Gagarin's landing that he in fact ejected from his capsule in
the stratosphere and landed separately only in his spacesuit. And in fact those famous
letters CCCP on his helmet were painted just minutes before launch when an engineer realized
that because he was going to land only in a parachute and a spacecraft he could be mistaken
for an American spy plane pilot unless his uniform contained an identifying marking.
Now the person who really had to respond to the perceived threat of the Gargarin launch
was John F. Kennedy. And John F. Kennedy plays a distinctive and really fascinating role
in this story especially around considering the fragility of the human body and how it
must be protected in space.
John F. Kennedy changed his shirt five times a day, he changed his suit up to two times
a day, and he was uniquely conscious of image and the presentation of the body. This was
in fact because he was enormously sick for his entire life. He had been pronounced dead
in 1947 and resuscitated because of problems with his adrenal disease, Addison's Disease,
for which he had pellets of time released medicine implanted in his thighs every six
months for the rest of his life. He walked most of the time with crutches when he was
outside of the public view and he had injections of Novocain put deep into his back up to three
times weekly by a doctor throughout his White House years. In fact there was a betting pool
in the Secret Service as to whether he would spend most of a second term in a wheelchair.
Perhaps because of his need to constantly mask his illness and present his own body
[clears throat] as a crisp, mobile, athletic figure, Kennedy was also uniquely able to
understand the power of the new communication media of his own time, of television.
When Gagarin was launched and made such an incredible impression on the media of his
age, Kennedy demanded immediately of Lyndon Johnson, who is the titular head of the U.S.
space efforts, as to whether there was any particular effort that the U.S. could make
in space that would promise results by the end of the decade and results which could
especially be televised.
Johnson reported back that it would be possible if vast investments were made to land an American
on the surface of the moon and return him to the earth.
Only three weeks after Gagarin's launch this policy was enacted by an act of Congress and
funds were commissioned that were by 1966 would amount to 5% of the entire U.S. federal
budget. Thus any conception of American space exploration in the 1960's as being a slow,
expanded, engineering effort in which things were prototyped and slowly worked out over
time is completely false. This was a completely crash effort in which no expense was spared
and in which only efficiency and effectiveness of function was the defining criteria.
In the early 1960's it was popularly understood that American astronauts were going to have
to be paragons of physical function. We've all seen The Right Stuff where they're tested
and twirled and moved around. In fact this was not the case at all.
The defining engineering characteristics of the human body that were to control the space
race mostly shaped around the body of this man, John Paul Stapp, who operating a series
of rocket sleds in the Mirock Desert established the limits of human resistance to acceleration,
to spin, using his own portly middle-aged physique. These limits were then engineered
into the vast contractual web of relationships that would control the space race.
What in the end though scotched the attempts by NASA to display their astronauts as paragons
of physical form was the fact that it turned out as tested by Randall Lovelace, a subcontractor
to the Aerospace School of Medicine in San Antonio, women could it turns out pass most
of the acceleration and twirling tests, etcetera far better than men which immediately led
to a whole separate mythology, that of a qualification as a test pilot for being an astronaut from
which women were, of course by nature, excluded.
So what were spacesuits? The truth of the identity of especially the early spacesuits
of the American space program, the Mercury and Gemini suits which only as we should remember
only were used four or five years before the Apollo suit is shown up by this image in which
Alan Shepard's Mercury suit bleeds Army green from underneath the silver coating. The silver
coating was in fact simply a sprayed on finish to give a space age look to a military high
altitude pressure suit built by B.F. Goodrich based on their expertise with Wiley Post and
used by Mercury astronauts.
Now most of the pressure suits of the mid-century era were like this one. They were what's called
partial pressure suits that exerted mechanical pressure on the body to avoid all the physiological
effects of altitude. They used these inflated tubes on the side to squeeze that form fitting,
tight cloth around the body.
Full pressure suits were by contrast cumbersome and bulky. But substantial innovation did
come in the 40s and 50s when the same engineer who had outfitted Wiley Post in the 1930's
for B.F. Goodrich watched a bug called a tomato worm crawl around his garden. And like any
if you can visualize the caterpillar, the caterpillar has these kind of banded bubbles
around it that allow the pressure within the organism to remain constant as it moves and
articulates its body in order to move around a leaf. And so these kind of ribs were used
and became the popular image of spacesuits as seen here in Herge's Explorers on the Moon
which was written in 1951.
The later public image of spacesuits of course became of these shiny suits. The first shiny
suit was made for the X-15 high altitude research program. And the reason it was silver was
very simply because the company that made the suit, David Clark Company, had been really
excited in about 1956 to get its suit on the cover of Collier's, which was like getting
on Good Morning America or something like that today and they'd been bumped at the last
minute because they were told by the editors of Collier's that the suit did not look spacey
And so immediately they revised the suit to be coated with this silver lame fabric and
they claimed, as in this photo here of test pilot Scott Crossfield, that this was to resist
the thermal rigors of space but in fact this was not the case at all. And in fact early
Gemini astronauts who still had silver suits found that when they got out into space the
silver coating was the least functional thing of all because it dazzles you with the unprotected
rays of the sun as they reflected off your own clothing.
So for the first American EVA's as with here with Ed White the spacesuits became white
instead of silver with a commensurate effect on science fiction of course as Buck Rogers
in the middle of the 1960's stopped wearing silver and started wearing white on American
But the spacesuits themselves for Gemini were not much better than the tight, constricting
suit worn by Wiley Post in the 1930's. This is a picture of Gene Cernan after his Gemini
EVA and if he looks completely exhausted it's because he is. When he got to the ground,
the suit technicians after his splash down removed about a liter of water from each leg
of his spacesuit of his own sweat. He lost all 10 fingernails from clenching the tightly
inflated rubber gloves of his suit. And against this background the suits of the Mercury and
Gemini efforts were judged completely inappropriate for the massive and essential extravehicular
activity of the lunar launch.
Now whoever's phone that was I have a rule in my lectures at Berkeley that if a phone
goes off I get to answer it, but I won't impose that rule here.
>>male voice: [unintelligible]
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: [laughs]
So, now of course, as they'd sought to design these pressure suits NASA engineers were getting
quite nervous about this prospect of doing something they'd never done before which is
to say landing something on the moon. And the very nature of this enterprise, a vast,
expensive, truly important engineering endeavor designed to do something that would never
be done until the first time it was done, meant that Apollo's, that one of the other
fundamental technologies that is the legacy of Apollo today is the technology of simulation
itself. That is to say of, and specifically of digital simulation, of trying to do things
before you have to do them.
Simulation technologies and flight simulation was first invented in the 1930's by the Air
Force in order to train pilots in foul weather flying without actually having them go up
in bad weather. The first simulator company, The Link Company, was an organ company not
coincidentally because all these simulators used pneumatic tubes to provide a kind of
analog computing model of simulation.
And interestingly enough also in this context the very first digital computer with magnetic
stored memory, the World Wind computer, was itself originally designed to be a flight
simulator to allow the Air Force to test out aircraft before they had been actually designed.
This project grew far outside of this origins to become for a stored program computer that
you can see over in the Computer Museum. Interesting enough its main simulation technology was
in the end used to do was to do the very first [clears throat] electronic map projection
for the Air Force's early warning defense systems also in the 1950's.
But I digress.
Each space mission: Mercury, here Gemini, and here Apollo had commensurately massively
larger and massively more complicated simulation devices. I don't know if you can see but that's
a little model of the, well full scale model, of the Apollo command module here with these
vast architectures of simulator lenses around it. The glass in this simulator alone weighed
more than the actual Apollo capsule.
In fact highly sophisticated techniques of projection were deployed to give a pseudo-three
dimensional aspect to the pictures outside the window. When you moved your head the pictures
themselves would simulate parallax and move. But the complicated analog computing of these,
but when it came to simulating the Apollo mission soon gave way to this: the very first
digital simulation; a program which could store 256 edges and polygons that was used
by each Apollo astronaut to simulate over and over again the process of landing on the
moon with the lunar lander.
In 1962, NASA had the task of designing and making a suit that could not only allow a
man to be outside in space but allow him to walk around, to do work, to fix his spaceship
if need be, and they had no idea how this would be done. They did what any good governmental
organization does which was put out an RFP and winning suit by far was this suit, the
SPD 143 named for the, the SPD stood for the very same specialty products division that
had been set up by Spanel at Playtex to do government research. And the great innovation
of the suit was these rubber pieces here which combined the tomato worm bellows that had
been invented for the Tintin suits with the sophisticated assemblage, internal assemblage
of nylon tricot, a fabric used for bras that allowed these convolutes as they were called
to both be flexible and also under an enormously high pressure. These convolutes formed the
joints of the suit and formed the basis of the suit's success.
But Playtex at the time was a small company, a company associated with women's underwear,
and you can just imagine how the same NASA which had so quickly scotched even the idea
of women being involved in the space program, you can guess how excited they were to have
Playtex as their main subcontractor for the suit. So instead of hiring Playtex they made
Playtex into a subcontractor to a large company, Hamilton Standard, a division of United Aircraft,
that they judged to have the best organizational skills and paper engineering skills to make
the process work.
But this was a shotgun marriage --
that was singularly unsuccessful. The cultures of the two companies were enormously different
not only was the main engineer of Apollo, Lenny Shepard a television repairman, his
main lieutenant George Durney was a former sewing machine salesman. In fact, both NASA
and Hamilton Standard were accused of with derision calling these guys, saying that these
guys were not qualified to design spacesuits because they had only graduated from the school
of hard knocks.
Instead within Playtex the phrase hard knockser then came to be a badge of honor for people
who understood the empirical way of working with the body sometimes it at the expense
of paper efficiencies.
The whole prospect came to a head in 1965 when ILC was removed for a whole variety of
reasons, some cultural, some engineering related, from the spacesuit contract, but successfully
argued its way back into a competition between an ILC suit, this suit made by Hamilton Standard
and a suit made by the manufacturer of the Gemini company.
When one of the other competing suits was going down a model of the lunar lander ladder
the helmet blew off. When another suit was being tested on a simulated lunar surface
the shoulders of the suit slowly expanded enough that the astronaut would not have been
able to get back into the hatch of the lunar module and would have been stranded on the
moon forever.
So there was actually indeed in the end very little competition. Playtex by far had the
best suit and they were hired as the prime contractor for the Apollo spacesuit from 1965
onward supplying every suit that walked on the surface of the moon. When in 1967 their
position was again threatened, in this case by another set of suits made by a company
called Litton Industries, they sent with a modified version of their original suit called
the A7LB, this film of a fully pressurized, fully suited suit technician playing that
most masculine of games football on the Dover, Delaware football field. They were victorious
and they made the rest of the suits for Apollo.
So how was the suit actually made? Well it's mostly made by hand and it was mostly made
by women taken from the bra and girdle assembly lines of the rest of the Playtex company who
had to sew to one-sixty-fourth of an inch tolerance 21 layers of thin, gossamer thin
fabric, each slightly larger to the next, it was like a giant Russian doll, all without
the aids of any pins or fasteners that could potentially puncture the suit if they were
left in this massive assemblage. They did it on Singer sewing machines. The only modification
was one of them was given a very long arm as you can see to allow the whole suit to
be moved around underneath it and sewn together.
Drawings which as architects and engineers were used to creating objects, were used to
drawing things before we actually make them were only produced after the fact. They were
a contractual obligation that ILC had to NASA and the suits were slowly taken apart and
enumerated by hand in order for this contractual obligations to be met.
One of Playtex's biggest arguments with NASA was over the fact that within this larger
systems engineering hierarchy anytime an object was modified to be different from any other
object it had to have a separate serial number. This meant that when it came to fitting the
bodies of the astronauts NASA's proposal was to have every single part of every single
astronaut's suit, these were all custom fit, have a different serial number which ILC said
was ridiculous. They wanted to instead use just the designations small, medium, and large.
ILC was in the end victorious and all the suit elements were sized small, medium, and
large except for the urinary collection device which after an incident, I kid you not with
the first astronaut fitted, was sized large, extra large, extra, extra large.
So this is a fascinating history but it was not at the time the public face of spacesuit
design. At the time the public face of spacesuit design focused on suits that came from this
one. This was a suit made by Litton Industries, another big engineering conglomerate at the
time. It was originally made to allow components of vacuum tubes to be tested under electrical
load inside a vacuum chamber by a technician suited in this hard, heavy suit. But as you
can see in the late 1950's when space travel was on the rise culturally, post Sputnik,
and vacuum tubes were being replaced by transistors, Litton quickly repurposed this effort into
making spacesuits leading to this press release by NASA titled, "Nothing New Under Ye Oldie
Sun" of 1959 which trumpeted this hard prototype aluminum suit as the iconic image of space
And these kinds of suits which reduced human, the vast mobility of the 37 degrees of freedom
to the human body to a system of engineered joints and swivels, etcetera were the suits
that most preoccupied spacesuit designers at the time. These suits were labeled RX because
the main suit technician of NASA, Joe Kosmo, called them the "prescription for suit design."
And they were also beloved of the military who commissioned for their own space station
under planning at the time this suit which would have lots of different modules to fit
different parts of the body and actually would have a rocket pack to allow quick evacuation
from the capsule if necessary.
The suits were very beautiful but they were never to actually fly on the moon. But they
remained, interestingly enough, the public face of space travel as here in the 1970 American
Pavilion of the Osaka World's Fair where the last prospect facing the audience was these
hard, beautiful suits against a prospect of the moon.
Of course at the time a much more compelling picture was being made, was being promulgated
which was this picture, a picture of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. What's
particularly interesting about this picture, again in the context of relating this to our
current historical moment, is as least two things. One that CBS, which more than 70%
of Americans watched the lunar landing on, invested massively in its own simulations
inventing such things as green screen technology for the purposes of effectively communicating
what was going on with the lunar effort. This was a rubber lunar landscape that rolled --
underneath the superimposed lander to give a sense of what was going on.
This is Walter Cronkite sitting at the set that was designed for it. The set was called
Hal 10,000 because it was actually designed by the same set designer, Douglas Trumbull,
who had worked on 2001. And not incidentally the producer of this vast non-linear experiment
in television broadcasting was this fellow, Robert Wussler, who would become with Ted
Turner the founder of CNN.
Now the other component, I'm gonna talk especially to this audience about the main other manufacturer
of beautiful hard suits, in fact those most beloved by designers and engineers which were
invented just hundreds of yards from here at the NASA Ames Research Center. These suits
called the AX series of suits were called by the noted architectural critic and urbanist,
Michael Sorkin, some of the most beautiful objects ever made by man. Like the Litton
RX suits with which their engineering was related they reduced the movements of the
human body to these elegant conic surfaces and Teflon lined sliding bearings.
One of the reasons that I ended up writing my book was precisely because it was only
these suits that had ever been written about by designers. They're kind of balletic movements
and reduction of the body to a single set of variables.
The question of variables is particularly interesting. If we were to trace the architectural
legacy of Apollo one component is of course the suit. But another component is these kinds
of spaces. This is the first control space made for the North American Air Defense Command,
immortalized in War Games if you remember. This is the second. And this was the proposal
for the space that was fundamentally based on it that was to be constructed in Houston
for the manned space flight center, a space that we now know as Mission Control.
In Mission Control all the variables of space flight, all the vast amount of information
were all brought into one single architectural space and all the decisions incumbent upon
this vast infrastructure were also projected from that space. In fact this vast web of
control and connection only broke down in the Apollo program two times. The first, of
course, was Apollo 13 in which again an unexpected, catastrophic failure beset the Apollo capsule
leading to one of the world's most immortal hacks of a air filter from a lunar module
being adapted with of course Duct tape to that of the command module.
But I talk about it here not so much because of this hack, which I of course very much
appreciate, but because at the same time as they built this the astronauts who had been,
were it's safe to say a little frustrated with the whole enterprise of Apollo at this
point, also were the first Apollo astronauts to disconnect all the biomedical needs which
were otherwise plugged directly into this output of data. And they felt the need during
this crisis to in fact divorce themselves, at least divorce at the most intimate level
from this larger mechanism of control.
The other major breakdown was in a follow on from the Apollo, the Apollo Application
Project as it was known or Skylab in which the third crew of Skylab, whose every action
was controlled by a teleprinted instructions faxed from the earth every morning, felt the
need in the third week of their extended mission to, as a Harvard Business School study would
later call it, "go on strike in space" and turn off all communication with the ground
and do something which will be particularly understandable to a Google audience, which
is just look at the earth.
Interestingly enough they all became committed environmentalists and devoted their report
of their mission to Congress to an extended essay on the effects of human technology on
the environment.
This is particularly relevant because the other major architectural application of Apollo
was announced by Hubert Humphrey in 1968 with the following words: "Precisely the same techniques
that are going to put our man on the moon," he was speaking in 1968, "are going to be
the techniques that will clean up our cities." Unlike today where we're used to hearing a
comparison of difficulty with putting on a man on the moon with any technological endeavor,
if we can do this put a man on the moon surely my iPhone can work in downtown San Francisco.
But this was not the case. In fact Hubert Humphrey was saying that precisely the techniques
and even precisely the personnel that put an American on the surface of the moon were
going to solve the problems of American cities.
Starting in 1962, NASA and what was to become the Department of Housing and Urban Development
had been working closely together and produced reports like this one which announced that
"creating a safe, happy city is a greater challenge than a trip to the moon because
housing is more complex than a rocket and the city is subject to more perturbations
than the moon. It's ever changing problems nevertheless can be attacked in the same logical
way that we've gone about exploring the universe."
This lead to, for instance, that Apollo landing simulator being used to simulate a modernist
proposal for downtown Los Angeles, the very first 3-D architectural rending ever made,
and it lead, most interestingly, to the designer of this space craft a guy named Harold Finger.
This is a nuclear propelled deep space propulsion craft that was designed by NASA and used as
Kubrick as the basis for the spacecraft Discovery in 2001. Finger was by 1969 Director of Research
and Development for the Department of Housing and Urban Development where he directed a
vast digital enterprise called Operation Breakthrough that sought to remake American communities
through electronic simulation and prefabricated designs.
While they never found success on earth, one of the five pilot projects were built but
they had terrible technical problems with things like pneumatic toilets which I won't
go into because it's messy, but you can imagine. They did in the end find their ultimate expression
in this study which was done by Ames, a study for a space station built using these Operation
Breakthrough components to be positioned at Lagrange Point 5 between the earth and the
moon and settled by persons from western industrialized nations and managed perfectly according to
"principles from government and industry."
The actual Apollo suit we should remember by contrast was a very different kind of object
and is to this and to the beginning of the conclusion of this talk that I now turn.
The spacesuit contained 21 layers of fabric; not one of those was invented from scratch.
All were repurposed from applications on earth where a single quality that they had such
as fire retardance or resistance to micrometeoroids or something like that was their primary use.
They were mostly made by the DuPont Chemical Company which in fact had made most of these
different kinds of materials as isomers or slight variations of a fundamental chemistry
that underlied their business.
And what we see if we look at the first Gemini suit, a later Gemini suit, and then the Apollo
suit is not a kind of singular engineered from scratch solution but in fact a multiply
adapted layered resilience solution that comes from adding one thing to another slowly over
And this brings me to my conclusion
which is to ask you to consider these two images. The first one of the astronaut at
the very apogee of his expedition on the surface of the moon sustained only by this beautifully
engineered what was called a PLSS or portable life support system that was made by Hamilton
Standard in which the astronaut himself becomes simply a mechanical figure, another device
in the kind of cybernetic loop.
See that figure a bit more largely here.
Contrasted with this image which was a mobility study of the ILC spacesuit made by the crew
systems division of NASA in which an x-ray shows both the beautifully handcrafted convolutes
of the ILC spacesuit but also of course the fabric of the human body itself.
And it is the essential point of my book and of this talk that the spacesuit made by Playtex
was successful not just because it did in the end manage to accommodate itself to that
larger military industrial system, but also because it was in a very important and fundamental
way different from that system, and in a way that made it resemble nothing more than the
actual body itself it protected, the epidermal logic if you will of our own multiply resilient,
multiply adapted machine of a body.
This other image points us a bit further and it's a funny image, of course it's John Young
in his silver Apollo spacesuit, but this image which I turned up in a folder in an archive
in Houston is particularly, was never published because of course he's vamping, he's like
being a bit stylish which is not the image of astronauts. But it is a really interesting
image because of course it was very much about fashion and the word fashion here is a particularly
interesting one. Because we should remember in the context of the way in which a spacesuit
was made from a girdle was made from a tire, we should remember that to fashion means on
the one hand to make something that is superficial and superficially useless, but on the order
hand the verb to fashion means to make something out of something else, something it wasn't
originally intended to do. I don't how many MacGyver fans are in the audience, but MacGyver
was fashioning the whole time: making a bomb diffuser out of a paper clip, a parachute
out of bubble gum and an umbrella. And making something out of something else something
to which it's originally not originally intended is actually the underlying logic of this spacesuit
and of much that amazes us in the world.
The logic of the spacesuit and spaceman was fundamentally one of, in the end, conflict
which we can see here. This is possibly my most favorite photograph of all of Apollo
of Neil Armstrong safely back inside the lunar module after his EVA. And should see that
he is not only elated but he's also exhausted. This system, this vast architecture of Apollo
wrung every last ounce out of the astronauts because it was fundamentally at odds with
what the body wanted to do. And the spacesuit was an object that not only mediated between
the lunar vacuum and the body but it also mediated between this vast organizational
system designed enterprise with its utopian vision of how things could be done and the
real robust logic of the human body in all its energy and exhaustion.
We might see here then a similarity between two of the most discordant elements I brought
into this lecture: one is Dior's new look here seen above a map of Paris. This is Paris
even before Houseman when it was only a kind of medieval fashioned grain and here Alan
Bean in front of the blue marble of the earth.
And it's of course on the blue marble that I have to end, but I want to say a couple
of things about this image which we all know really well and which your company has done
so much to popularize as a modern day interface. But this is the blue marble, the whole earth
as we know it and I show it to you in its original orientation because of course the
capsule harbors its own micro frame of reference and happened to be inverted from that of the
earth when the photograph was taken and NASA immediately flipped it around for the press
release. But I think it's much more interesting this way. I also want to introduce you through
the mechanism of that illusion of the images orientation. As an Australian of course I'm
intimately contest the northness of all maps,
but also because this image is also a bit of an illusion. The earth is huge. This massive
sphere weighs six, six sextillion tons. But the actual habitable atmosphere is just like
the spacesuit itself fragile tissue around the outside. And especially in a moment where
we're having discussed broadly that we can or should re-engineer the earth itself to
technologize our way out of climate change, the lessons of technology and nature in their
most extreme moments as in the Playtex spacesuit might be particularly relevant.
Twenty-five years after walking on the surface of the moon Neil Armstrong wrote his own letter
of appreciation to the Apollo suit makers.
"The suit," Armstrong wrote, "turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecrafts
or objects in history. This was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic. Its
true beauty, however," he expounds, "was that it worked. It was tough, reliable, and almost
The last and possibly best argument for the special affinity between the nature of the
bodies of the Apollo astronauts and this object which protected them is not a matter of storytelling
so much as history, which is to say the continued attention of the Apollo astronauts to their
spacesuits to the exclusion of all other artifacts of the space age. When they come to Washington
Apollo's elite alumni do visit the Smithsonian but they don't go to the vast cathedral of
the Air and Space Museum on the Mall instead they go to a small storage complex, in I kid
you not Suitland, Maryland, where the remaining Apollo spacesuits are stored. They want to
see always if their suits are being looked after and taken care of as the living material
of the latex continues to change and transform.
They regard the suits fundamentally as part of their own selves.
So, in some ways then, we can look at the suit as part of all of ourselves and look
at the suit as a quintessential part of this most heroic of narratives as a place holder
for all of our own bodies in the endless architecture of space.
So thank you very much.
I'd be delighted to take questions if anyone has any.
>>male #1: You contrasted the methodologies of the corporate cultures between the NASA
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #1: contractor system and the Playtex company's school of hard knocks.
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #1: How far would you push that difference? Were they just different cultures or were
they really a contrast between the systemic method of invention and development versus
the sort of anarchy kind of --
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #1: individuals? How far would you --
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: It was a massive conflict and it was not, it was a problematic conflict
too because Playtex had a huge difficulty with all the reporting mechanisms, the reliability
indices, everything that needed to be part of something like Apollo. And I wouldn't single
out any one contract in particular but the whole history of the kind of military industrial
spacesuit design is full of things like for instance a double bladder. It looks on paper
like the most, like it's gonna be the best solution because you have, all of a sudden
you have nine nines reliability because the change of two bladders breaking is so much
less than one bladder breaking. But then you also reduce the astronaut to total immobility.
And the Soviets did this with their first EVA spacesuit that Leonov wore when he became
the first man to walk out in space protected only by a spacesuit. And the spacesuit became,
this double-aired spacesuit became so immobile that in the end he needed to let air out of
it by hand in order to make his way back into the capsule.
But the Ames suits and the Litton suits, there is this, as an architect I design environments
for people all the time and there's always a difference between the logic of how something
works on paper, the logic how an office building is supposed to make you all work and how the
office actually works, and how a power plant actually works and what actually happens.
And there's always this difference and we're always in some ways designing for people,
designing for human environments is always a process of managing this gap.
But it was particularly because it was in the nature of the space race that the logic,
this seemingly invincible systems logic that had made these incredible objects in terms
of ICBM's was a logic which had been developed only in a kind of closed world of these technological
devices in which it worked very well but not that had a fundamental difficulty when it
came to human environments. And that's why I'm so interested also in all the urban proposals
that came out of the space race and in their problems and difficulties which I see as all
the same piece with the problems and difficulties that the same companies had designing for
the human body.
That make sense?
>>male #1: Um-hum.
>>male #2: So when you speak about the differences in culture --
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #2: in these two companies I mean we're talking about the 60s.
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #2: I mean for your own experience can you tell is there similar tensions in
today's companies? I mean is there --
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Well I mean I have --
>>male #2: Are there lessons that were learned --
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Yeah.
>>male #2: and are actually like have been applied?
>>Nicholas de Monchaux: Well, I think it's really interesting in the context of to be
talking about this here in Silicon Valley because of course every Silicon Valley company
whether it's HP or Apple or Google starts with a hack in a garage right? That's the
founding mythology. And so you have I think especially embedded in the DNA of every technology
company is a conflict between these enterprises. At some level it can't stay the same as things
change from being a hack in a garage to being a massive company with all kinds of issues
of liability and accountability, etcetera, etcetera.
And it can seem though sometimes in managing this conflict like the kind of, that you can
draw a diagram always and this is the problem that all of us has of designers is that we
mistake a simulation; whether it's a diagram on a piece of paper or a complex fluid dynamic
model, we mistake the kind of seeming legibility of something that tells us it will work for
something that actually does work. And the reality of making things work is always a
balance between the two.
So to the extent that a company like Hamilton Standard succeeded it was in its own way through
managing that conflict. ILC was particularly good at the practical, the kind of boots on
the ground level of hacks and the kind working all this together and it was particularly
bad at everything else. I mean you see that in the paperwork all through. It's not like
in 1965 they suddenly learned how to interact with NASA. They had a terrible time. If you
through the weekly memos and things like that they were always being abraded and censured
and they hadn't adequately reported this and they hadn't adequately reported that. I don't
mean necessarily even to idealize them as a company 'cause they had a lot of difficulty
but they did one thing really, really well which was understand on a very intimate scale
how the human body really worked. And they also to their great credit did manage through
appropriating personnel and systems from other military contractors to in the end make it
all the way through Apollo and engage robustly with this larger military industrial system.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy day everybody. I appreciate it.