ANDREW CUTRARO/REDUX

Save This Spacesuit

Find out how experts rescued a piece of history.

On July 20, 1969, millions of Americans were glued to their TVs. They were watching Neil Armstrong become the first person to walk on the moon.

Scientists had been working on sending a person to the moon for nearly 10 years. NASA, the American space agency, practiced by sending people into space to orbit Earth. Then, after years of preparation, it launched Apollo 11—the first mission to land on the moon.

On the moon, Armstrong had to wear a special suit. The moon has almost no atmosphere. His suit kept him at a safe temperature and gave him air to breathe.

Suit Breakdown

DANE A. PENLAND/SMITHSONIAN’S NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM (NASM 2014-01788)

For many years, Armstrong’s spacesuit was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2006, scientists realized it was starting to show signs of age. The fabric was stained. The colors were fading. The metal pieces on the front were falling apart.

“The suit was made to last only long enough to get an astronaut to the moon and back,” says Lisa Young. She is a conservator responsible for taking care of Armstrong’s spacesuit.

To fix his suit, Young needed to understand how it was made all those years ago. The suit is made up of 24 different materials. The outer layer is “Beta cloth,” a strong material that doesn’t rip. Under the Beta cloth are layers of material that protect against the moon’s temperature swings and block dangerous radiation from the sun.

The final layer is an inner bladder made of rubber. Normally the weight of Earth’s atmosphere puts pressure on the body. On the moon, the bladder would do that job. It squeezed Armstrong’s body to create pressure. Over the years, exposure to light, oxygen, and temperature changes on Earth made the bladder crack and change shape, says Young.

Inside and Out

Scientists carefully examined the suit. They took many measurements. Workers also used X-rays to see some of the inner layers of Armstrong’s suit. Using these images, they made a three-dimensional (3-D) model of the suit (see Out-of-This-World Design).

On Display

Young spent 13 years conserving Armstrong’s suit. She wanted to fix it so it looked like it did when it got back from the moon—not so it would look brand-new.

The team cleaned the fabric, but they didn’t want to accidentally remove tiny pieces of moon dust. “Preserving Armstrong’s suit reminds us about what it took to visit another world,” says Young. “It also gets us thinking about where we’ll go next.”

The suit is now on display in a special case at the museum. That new case has better light, humidity, and a controlled temperature. It also removes chemicals from the air that could harm the suit.

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