Suited for Space

Photograph and X-ray of the space suit worn by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission. (Photo by Mark Avino/Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; X-ray by Roland H. Cunningham and Mark Avino)

Photograph and X-ray of the space suit worn by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission. (Photo by Mark Avino/Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; X-ray by Roland H. Cunningham and Mark Avino)

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first small steps onto the lunar surface, they left behind footprints that remain among the most iconic images in the history of human exploration. Those treaded patterns confirmed that humans had constructed not only rockets powerful enough to escape our home planet but also clothing capable of protecting an individual from the harsh vacuum of space. But the massive scale of spacecraft tends to overshadow the technological advances required to construct the mobile life-support systems that granted astronauts the freedom to interact with an alien environment.

This summer the Museum at CHF explores the human-sized challenges associated with space travel by hosting Suited for Space. This traveling exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the National Air and Space Museum, traces the evolution of space suits used during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. The exhibition includes dozens of high-resolution photographs of space-suit components along with X-ray images that allow visitors to examine the internal structures of these inventions.

These pictures reveal the complex array of natural and synthetic materials involved in space-suit construction. Rubber and cotton played as important a role as the woven stainless steel, heat-resistant textiles, and high-impact plastics that NASA developed with such firms as DuPont and Owens Corning. But this diversity of materials has complicated efforts to preserve space suits, which were typically intended for one-time use. As a result most surviving space suits must remain in storage to prevent further deterioration. Nevertheless, visitors to CHF can examine a replica Apollo space suit on loan from NASA as well as a glove and helmet from the Smithsonian’s collections.

Just don’t expect to see the boots that the Apollo 11 astronauts used to make their famous lunar footprints. Those were left on the Moon to conserve weight for the flight home.

Suited for Space runs until November 14, 2014, at the Museum at CHF.