Suiting Up

Detail from Robert Rauschenberg, Trust Zone, from the Stoned Moon series, 1969; one of the many images highlighted in Spacesuit. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Detail from Robert Rauschenberg, Trust Zone, from the Stoned Moon series, 1969; one of the many images highlighted in Spacesuit. (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Nicholas De Monchaux. Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 2011. 380 pp. $34.95.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a curious example of postmodernist writing. Building on one of his own graduate-school papers about domestic space, Nicholas de Monchaux expands into the solar system with this study of astronaut apparel for the Apollo program. He begins with the suits worn by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their moon walk in July 1969. Known as the A7L model, each suit featured 21 layers of high-tech materials like latex rubber and Mylar polyester film, handcrafted into gear by seamstresses at the International Latex Corporation (ILC), a firm in Delaware that made Playtex brassieres.

De Monchaux finds significance in these 21 layers and constructs his book around this number. The volume consists of a series of “layers,” or vignettes, on 21 topics, including the evolution of flight, space equipment, and garments for pilots; the cold war and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union; and internal conflicts between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and government contractors. Some of the “layers” focus on cultural events like French couturier Christian Dior’s 1947 introduction of the hourglass “New Look” in ladies’ fashion or on such political topics as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” in foreign policy. 

De Monchaux justifies this catholic approach by pointing to the nature of his subject: “To write a single, linear narrative of its creation would not only be difficult, it would deny the very quality of the object that makes it worthy of research: its open-ended complexity. The evolution of the Apollo suit provides a connective tissue to astonishingly disparate yet individually essential strands of material and visual culture, technology, and design” (p. 5).

De Monchaux is a professor of architecture rather than a historian of science, technology, and business. His book complements the historical literature on design and innovation, but he seems unaware of this larger body of scholarship. He maintains that spacesuit models with hard exterior shells created by “insider” engineers within the military-industrial complex were deemed technically insufficient by NASA, which then turned to “outsider” seamstresses at a bra factory for a flexible alternative. This type of collaborative crossover has typified innovation for generations. One example from the DuPont Company in the postwar era is instructive. When DuPont marketers sought to develop architectural applications for nylon, polyester, and other synthetic fibers, they hired weaver Dorothy Liebes to create handmade “idea fabrics” for architects and interior designers unfamiliar with the new materials. High technology and craft production did intersect during the cold war, yet De Monchaux presents the collaboration between NASA and the ILC as something unique. 

The idea of telling stories around a single artifact is a familiar one, but 21 “layers” make for difficult reading. De Monchaux’s mini-narratives have a stream-of-consciousness feeling about them, much like blog entries. There are long passages on the history of balloonists, statistics on the weight and length of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and trivia on tenancy in the Empire State Building. We are told that the head of the ILC developed a friendship with Edward L. Bernays, one of the founding fathers of American public relations, without an explanation as to why this mattered. The result has the feel of an early draft rather than a polished narrative in which the author helps the reader connect the dots.

Historians who specialize in design, technology, and innovation understand that the creative process is messy and complicated, that heroic tales of big science do not reflect reality, and that technical change is inexorably tied to cultural change. De Monchaux comes to these subjects as an urban designer, theorist, and architect who is curious about the past. Spacesuit is a synthesis that draws on secondary sources in aerospace history, some primary sources from NASA, a smattering of oral-history interviews, the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, and the inventor-futurist Buckminster Fuller. Judging from the consumer feedback on amazon.com, his approach appears to satisfy history buffs of the Space Age. But those interested in the chemical industries and technologies may yearn for deeper analysis of the synthetic materials used in spacesuits and for a more nuanced narrative on innovation.  

Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Ph.D., is a historian at the University of Delaware. She is the author of seven books on the history of innovation, including The Color Revolution, which was funded by an Edelstein Fellowship from CHF's Beckman Center. Learn more about her work at imaginingconsumers.com.