NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Houston, Texas – 14 May 2012
Hello, my name is Cinda Chullen. I manage the United States Spacesuit
Knowledge Capture Program for JSC. I’m here today to have a
wonderful interview with our guest from the Smithsonian [National
Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.]. Her name is Dr. Cathleen
Lewis and she’s been with the Smithsonian for 27 years now.
She is responsible for the international aspects of the spacesuit
history at the Smithsonian. In about 2009 she inherited all this work
from Amanda Young, who wrote a book about the suits from the Smithsonian.
Since then Cathleen has been coming up to speed with all the different
things and is in charge of all the spacesuit work at the Smithsonian.
She’s visiting JSC today and we are honored here with her visit.
I wanted to give you a little bit of background on her education.
She has a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in Russian studies
from Yale [University, New Haven, Connecticut] and she also has a
Ph.D. in Russian studies from George Washington [University, Washington,
She’s here to visit JSC today looking at a potential loan for
spacesuits to head up to the Smithsonian. As you know we’ve
had a lot of really good things in collaboration with the Smithsonian
recently. We just had the Shuttle [OV (orbiter vehicle)-103 Discovery]
transferred to the Smithsonian recently, one of our honored Shuttles.
Also Cathleen has been in charge recently of a new facility that will
be housing all the spacesuits that are on loan from JSC and around
the agency. So with that, she’s here.
We have invited her to be interviewed today by Rebecca Wright. Rebecca
is our History Office Coordinator, and she’s graciously agreed
to do our interviews for our knowledge capture program. She volunteered
to come over today to interview Dr. Lewis. So with that, I give you
both of them.
Thank you, that was very nice.
Thank you all for coming today, we appreciate you being here. We wanted
to make sure that for the record we know that today is May 14th, 2012.
We are at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas as part
of the knowledge capture initiative. Again I’m Rebecca Wright,
the coordinator of JSC’s History Office. We certainly appreciate
you joining us for this conversation with Dr. Cathleen Lewis. As Cinda
mentioned, she is the curator of the spacesuit collection at the Smithsonian
Institution. We know your job duties are very many and varied. Start
out by sharing with us one of the most challenging aspects of your
There are many challenging aspects. As a curator, my job is defined
by the government as any other series. I’m a federal employee,
and I’m responsible for research, collections, exhibition, and
public service. Probably the most difficult thing is finding time
to balance them all and fit everything in. The research component
is really what drives my job, but that also involves collecting objects,
finding out their history, finding ways to put them on display, and
answering public questions. It’s constant motion. Much like
my visit has been today, constant motion. We’re trying to absorb
a lot of information all at once and be able to put it back out there
for the public and serving the public.
As you mentioned, part of your job is to collect items, and Cinda
mentioned that you’re here looking at some items that may be
on loan to the Smithsonian. Can you share with us more information
about what you’re looking at and what will happen, the process
of these items?
Well, in our collection we have the finest collection of spacesuits
in the world. I know that because I’ve seen the collections
that the Russians have. It is one of the most complete in terms of
period, from early flight suits all through the Apollo Program and
advanced suits. We’ve come here today—I’ve come
here with my colleague Hunter Hollins, who’s the loan manager—to
look at a Shuttle EMU [extravehicular mobility unit], which is one
part of the collection that we don’t have. We have very little
from the Shuttle International Space [Station, ISS] Program era. Just
by virtue of the components being reusable, the economy of the Shuttle
Program and the International Space Station Program, they’ve
changed much in the way that property has been disposed of.
The Air and Space Museum has had an agreement with NASA since the
late 1960s of right of first refusal for historic artifacts. We preserve
them, try our best to stop them at that point in time when they come
into our collection. For that reason we haven’t gotten very
many objects from the Shuttle or ISS Program.
Having something like a full EMU would vastly increase the scope of
our collection, and give us the possibility of telling the story of
the Shuttle and the ISS and its construction to our public in ways
they can understand. Spacesuits really are the charismatic objects
of our collection because even small children can understand how they
work and function on a general basis. They can look at them and say
oh, you need this, these are clothes that you need to wear to work
out in space. They understand that, so that’s what we’re
If this process reaches fruition and the full EMU finds its way to
your facility, walk us through the process of what happens to it when
it gets there.
It’s very complicated, and it always surprises people. Right
now we’re operating at three locations. We have the museum on
the [National] Mall, which everyone has known about. It’s been
open since 1976. We also have a storage facility in Suitland, Maryland,
which is an historic old facility largely consisting of Quonset huts
[prefabricated structures]. We’re trying to move out of there,
but we still have some operations there. We’ve opened up a new
storage facility for our collection at the [Steven F. Udvar-]Hazy
Center. It’s at the southeast point of [Washington] Dulles [International]
Airport, easily accessible from the airport. We’ve opened up
a new storage facility in the last year which will house our artifacts
that are not on display.
When the spacesuit comes to us, it will go initially to the [Paul
E.] Garber [Preservation, Restoration, and Storage] Facility, where
our collections people will unpack it and examine it, document its
condition. This is a much longer process than most people think. We
like to make sure that we know exactly what we have and precisely
what condition it is in.
Then our staff conservator, who’s a specialist in spacesuits
and spacesuit materials, Lisa Young, will take a look at it. We will
work together to try to figure out what sort of support structure
we’ll need to construct to go inside the suit. Just having it
on display as is used for public affairs is one thing, but when we’re
considering long term stabilization of the suit—all of our suits
have what we refer to as mannequins but they’re not really mannequins.
They’re structural supports built on the inside of suits that
with conservationally correct materials will help the suits withstand
gravity and any sort of the trials of being on display for a long
period of time.
From there it will likely go from Garber in Suitland to the Hazy Center
because the conservation lab will soon be located at the Hazy Center,
and we’ll work on it there. Instead of being on display near
Discovery at the Hazy Center it will be on display in a new gallery
that we’re hoping to finally open this summer, Moving Beyond
Earth, which tells the story of the Shuttle and the International
Space Station construction. It’s a gallery that will draw some
of our 8 million to 10 million visitors every year to the National
So it’ll be a slow progress over about a 50-mile radius over
a period of time. We’ll have checkout, fitting for conservation
correctness, preparation for display. Then our designers will come
in and take measurements to make sure everything fits, that the lighting
is appropriate for the suit. What we’ve found with our suit
collection is that lighting gives the greatest potential damage to
the suits, and that damage is cumulative, so we’re taking extra
care to make sure that the light exposure is very very limited.
In this new gallery that will be the case, so it’ll take a long
course, much longer than many people would consider. It doesn’t
just arrive happily in place on display. There are a lot of people
who have their hands—my colleagues in collections, design, conservation
will all play their part.
But it becomes a star when it debuts.
Yes, absolutely. The suits are a tremendous draw with interviews and
visitor surveys that we’ve done over the years. That is one
of the major attractions to the museum. Seeing the suits, seeing how
human beings function in space. That’s very important to people.
When you collect an item like the suit—we can use it for an
example—what other related information do you gather with it?
We gather as much as we possibly can. Component history—through
the Apollo suits it was very simple because we could track the components
after the fact. The suits were custom-made for each astronaut, so
we have an idea. We know about the fitting process, the sewing process,
working with the soft goods, and the transport between ILC [Dover,
LP in Delaware] and Hamilton Standard and then down to [NASA] Kennedy
Space Center [Florida]. That process was very standardized.
With the EMU it’s much different because the suit that we’re
looking at has components with different histories and different uses,
so we will have to do research on each individual component. That’ll
take time and effort. That’s what I’m paid to do, trying
to gather as much information as possible. Not only about the construction
but about the procedures, if components were flown, when their launch
date was, whether they were on the Shuttle, whether they were on the
International Space Station, what they were used for, when they were
returned to Earth, what other work they’ve done. Just trying
to document every single aspect of the history of each component.
Flight history, postflight history, and going on from there. Not only
through logbooks and records, but also through photography, see if
we can find situational photography showing components in action while
on the Space Station.
Gathering as much as possible, overburdening our servers with as much
information as possible, but trying to preserve as much information.
Oftentimes we’ve found a lot of this information gets lost over
the years. That’s one of the problems that I have finding information
on the Apollo Program. At the time when the Apollo Program wound down,
much of that documentation was lost because corporations don’t
like to hold on to documents. They have lawyers who insist that they
don’t need to. Only the things that go through the records schedule
for the National Archives [and Records Administration] get preserved
at Fort Worth [Texas]. We’re often looking for those personal
stories that if we don’t capture them right at the moment, they
go uncaptured. People retire, people forget. They take their personal
files with them, or they don’t take them at all and they get
shoved aside when the office is moved and things get lost.
What I try to do is get as much of that documentation information—including
the little notes and notebooks that engineers have had and technicians
have had over the years—just to precisely be able to say this
is what this piece did. This is its history from the time that it
was on the cutting boards in Dover [Delaware] to the time it came
to us. We can tell the history of each component, that’s the
ideal. Don’t often get to that ideal, but that’s our ideal.
It’s quite a range and collection of information, considering
that you have I understand somewhere between 200 and 300 suits in
that collection. Is that correct?
We have 278 either full or partial suits, depending on the circumstances
of how we acquired them. We would love to have that much documentation
on everything. We don’t, but we hold out hope. Every once in
a while someone comes through. I’ll get a call, one of my colleagues
will get a call. “Oh, I remember when this happened.”
Or, “My father had this box of papers. He’s gone on, would
you be interested?” Suddenly you find this absolute gold mine
of information. We want to document everything in that manner. We
don’t always meet it, but we keep that ideal in mind when collecting.
Especially collecting new things that we know that the documentation
exists now. Better now than later and waiting for it to appear.
Tell us about some of the suits. Of course most people know that you
have very historic suits of the Moon walkers, but if you could share
some information maybe about some of the suits that people would be
really surprised to find were in your collection.
Everyone knows—well everyone assumes, and it is true—we
have all 12 suits that have walked on the Moon. Those are the iconic
images of the Apollo Program. But we have prototypes, we have test
suits, training suits—suits that were never meant to fly but
were contract suits. We have four of the contract suits that were
submitted for the initial request for proposals through NASA for the
Apollo program. These are suits that were manufactured by companies
that people no longer assume have anything to do with the space program,
but were involved in the space program, or interested in working on
the Apollo Program back in the 1960s.
We have engineering model suits that are asymmetrical, that are designed
to test different options on joints. They tell a lot about the history
of developing joints and the limitations of engineering a suit so
an astronaut can actually do productive work in space. We also have
hard suits that date back from the 1950s, the Litton [Industries]
vacuum chamber suits that they produced while they were working under
contract with the Air Force.
The Air Force continued that program, and when they turned it over
to NASA they turned into the RX series of suits, and went on to the
AX series that [NASA] Ames [Research Center, Moffett Field, California]
worked on as well. We have this large spread of hard suits, and they’re
very useful to explain to our public how they came about—how
they were really the first suits to be designed to work in a vacuum,
and after NASA went through soft suits like the Apollo suits, they’ve
come back to the hard suit idea yet again after years; and the difficulties
of combining both launch and entry suit function with EVA [extravehicular
activity] function, and how that works, and how that split off again.
We also have early flight suits that NASA was testing at the Marshall
Space Flight Center [Huntsville, Alabama]. We have very rare suits,
for example an Arrowhead Mark IV that Arrowhead Company had submitted
to the Navy as a flight suit. The Navy pilots really really hated
it, because it had a corrugated torso and legs for flexibility. They
found it very uncomfortable. The remarkable thing is that for some
reason [Marshall Center Director] Wernher von Braun loved that suit
and there are photos of him walking around in it. Interesting enough,
it was that convolute technology that ILC had proposed that caught
NASA’s eye and got them the contract in part. So you have suits
that show technologies over the years and how they’ve come.
We also have a diving suit from the Navy from the beginning of the
last century. It’s not in my collection, but we have one of
Wiley [H.] Post’s suits [first pilot to fly solo around the
world] that he designed with Russell Colley [Mercury spacesuit designer]
to build that first flight suit in order to go higher and faster.
The range of suits is amazing.
We also have little known suits from the Manned Orbiting Laboratory
Program, which really are the only pieces of hardware from that program
that have survived, the Defense Department’s program. Those
suits give us a clue about the intentions and what that program was
going to be. They have gloves that have sharkskin applied to the palms
of the hands, and also have stainless steel fingernails on the exterior
of the gloves. What we understand from what the plans were, they needed
to give the pilots from that program extra manual dexterity so they
could turn dials and have fine motor control, which they wouldn’t
normally have at that level of glove technology.
I could talk on about any one of them, but we have a range of suits.
Not just the lunar suits, but a lot of things in between.
You mentioned suits as a full component. Do you have some of the accessories
that you accept as well, although you may not have the whole suit?
Yes. In total there are about 1,300 objects, give or take depending
on how you count, in the spacesuit collection. As I said only 278
are the pressure suits themselves. That includes gloves, helmets,
and boots in cases where they were detachable. That includes suits
that have had their cover layer separated. Oftentimes we receive suits
from NASA that have had the cover layers removed. Gene [Eugene A.]
Cernan’s Gemini IX suit is one case in point.
There was a lot of interest on how that suit performed. It was taken
apart and put back together, and the cover layer was removed. But
that too tells us a history. I’m very optimistic about showing
that to the public just to say look, the suits don’t stop working
when they come back to Earth. That’s when a lot of the learning
begins, in how it performs. That tells a story as well. We have those
components, and those are all out in our new storage facility now.
Tell us about the challenges of trying to preserve and maintain this
wide and very long range of suits with the different materials and
the different specifications that they were all made from.
There’s a saying among conservators—and plastic conservation
is having this great surge right now. People are looking at plastics
and synthetics from the point of view of art that was done about that
time, and including the suits. Plastics have a half-life of 50 years,
so if we’re looking at our collection, by and large it’s
hit its half-life. Plastics aren’t forever. They deteriorate,
as everybody knows. Your vinyl lawn chairs will eventually turn yellow
and brittle and start falling apart. The problem that we have preserving
the suits is that they’re combined materials, and some of them
don’t react very well together.
In the strictly conservation sense, the one thing to do to assure
preservation of all the components would be to take them apart. Well
we can’t do that, so we have to find a way to preserve them
best when they’re together and combined, and to isolate components
that are cross-reacting. My colleague Lisa Young, who’s a conservator,
has done quite a lot of work on trying to find the optimal situation.
As I mentioned light is limited, humidity is limited, temperature
We used to think that very cold storage worked. That didn’t
work, that actually accelerated some of the cross-linking in the plastics.
We’ve settled on 60 degrees Fahrenheit and held to under 35
percent humidity, which is quite a relief. We always used to joke
that the suits came from Dover, Delaware to Houston to Kennedy, and
then went to Washington. We’re talking about the most humid
places you can get in terms of heat and humidity, but we’re
trying to ameliorate some of that.
There have been occasions where we’ve had to remove components
of the suits. The polyvinyl chloride is a material that we just can’t
seem to stabilize. In order to preserve the rest of the suit we’ve
removed some hoses on some occasions. [Alan L.] Bean’s suit
is one case in point that there was nothing we could do to stabilize
it, so taking the hose, taking a minor part off the suit in order
to preserve the greater suit is one way to do it.
At this point we know that’s stabilizing it, and we’re
always looking for the next thing. There’s certain suggestions
that have come up over the years that may not be feasible. Storing
them in an inert gas—oxidation isn’t the major problem
we’re having, and storing any object, especially a large object,
in an inert chamber has other problems: access, expense. Whether that
cost outweighs the benefit over time is something we’re looking
But we keep trying. Lisa is constantly talking to materials scientists,
plastics experts, and also materials engineers, the people who built
it, trying to get the details. That’s one of the sides of the
details that I’m looking for when I collect an object, trying
to find as much information about how the soft goods were made and
produced. Because sometimes things change. People forget over time,
and it doesn’t absolutely get documented. If we get it right
at the time we don’t have to go back and find that after 1975
they started adding another additive, and the plastics were lasting
longer. We have to look and see what that additive does to the rest
of the suit.
It’s been quite a learning process from what you’re saying,
because when it was started—to stabilize and maintain these
suits there wasn’t a book that you could take off a shelf. Could
you give some other examples or maybe some anecdotes about the learning
The learning process has been, as I said, very long. It began really
with my predecessor, Amanda Young, who back in 1999 applied to the
Save America’s Treasures project, which was a millennial project
from the White House [White House Millennium Council]. I think Hillary
[R.] Clinton as first lady was the major sponsor of it through the
[National] Park Service. She applied for a grant and got matching
funds from Hamilton Sundstrand to examine the components of the Apollo
suits and determine why they were aging so badly.
We had had the suits since the 1970s and we had many suits out on
loan. About a third of our collection is out on loan. They were coming
back in very bad shape, not as a result of abuse but as a result of
aging. The beta cloth was deteriorating, the badges were gone. You
could feel that the suits were becoming brittle on the inside.
She got the grant and she was able to convene working groups on materials,
to gather some of the technicians and engineers who had worked on
it so they could brainstorm and remember exactly what happened, what
their intention was in the beginning. When you’re making a suit
with a 6-month working life expectancy, you’re not necessarily
motivated to make it so it can be preserved for 50 to 100 years, but
that information is necessary so we could learn what these materials
She worked with Lisa Young at the time to develop an ideal situation.
Suits were made to work in zero-g [gravity] or the one-sixth gravity
on the surface of the Moon. They were collapsing on themselves and
we had to design supports. Lisa and Amanda worked together to design
supports that would not interact with any of the suit components but
would stabilize the physical shape of the suits.
In working together they put together a booklet that Hunter, my colleague,
has on the care of the national collection of spacesuits. It’s
The Preservation, Storage and Display of Spacesuits. That was the
product of their research, and it focused on specific materials. They
couldn’t do everything, but it got a lot of the information
in stabilization, especially in the problem areas: the convolutes,
the zippers. Brass and rubber don’t like each other. Over a
long term they start to attack one another, and we were finding the
zippers didn’t work anymore. They were either frozen open or
frozen closed. We had to look into what we could do to solve that
problem, and what we could do to stabilize it. Stabilization is the
Reversing the problem is longer term, and we still haven’t come
up with any ideas. But stabilizing it for as long as we can, slowing
the deterioration until we get to the next step. It’s an iterative
process. They’re getting stabilized, and now we’re starting
to find other ways. Maybe we can do something. Maybe we can do testing,
find other ways to work with objects.
Were there lessons learned along the way of what not to do? You mentioned
the zippers should be left open, but maybe they should have been closed—those
types of things.
We’ve learned a lot. The tradition when we first got a collection
was to try to recreate the iconic image of the man on the Moon, of
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. We collected the suit—well, as much
as came back of course. Apollo 11, all the astronauts left their personal
life support systems on the surface of the Moon, and all but Cernan
and [Harrison H. “Jack”] Schmitt left their overshoes
on the surface.
We put together as much as possible in a full-up assembly, and we
found one of the contributing factors to the deterioration of the
interior of the suit—by doing that we were closing up the suit
entirely and causing a microenvironment to form inside the suit. You
have not a constant airflow, and humidity and everything else would
build up, especially off gassing of materials. So we no longer display
our suits that way. You’ll never see an Apollo suit all as one
thing. We separate the helmet, the gloves.
The zippers are always open by virtue of that and also virtue of display
constraints. In order to create a structure that would support the
weight of that suit, we have to find a way to insert a steel armature
on the inside that will support the weight. That is padded with padding-support
material, conservation-correct material. Those are the major learning
things. Keeping temperature low, humidity low, monitoring for light.
If anyone’s ever been to the museum, we have lots of ceiling
windows, and we have tried to limit the light. We’ve taken the
suits out of open galleries with lots of visible light as well as
UV [ultraviolet] light. Visible light is as dangerous to the materials
as UV, and we’re putting them into closed galleries with limited
Was there a tendency to clean up the suits?
No. That’s always a funny story, because the popular legend
is that when the suits came back they were sent to the dry cleaner’s.
Well, that’s the truth. NASA did send the suits to the dry cleaner’s,
but in the 1970s that was the standard conservationally-correct treatment
of textiles. You sent them to the dry cleaner’s. That didn’t
happen to all the suits, and we’ve been able to retrieve the
chemical process that was used on those suits at the time.
What we do now, our focus is to stabilize the suits at the point when
we receive them. Cleaning is limited. It has to be reversible, and
it can’t damage the components of the suit. So we clean with
ethanol and usually just a light vacuum with a HEPA [high-efficiency
particulate air] filter to try to get surface debris and dust. Lunar
regolith doesn’t come off, and we’re very glad about that
because that’s led to later research. Just to get the surface
contaminants that got attached to the suit as the result of transport
or everyday use post their mission life. Basic cleaning, but nothing
harsh or abrasive. Nothing that’s irreversible, nothing that
will take away from the working history of the suit.
I understand that X-rays were taken of some suits. Can you share why
that was done?
X-raying has become a tried-and-true technique in museum conservation.
Art conservators have used X-rays to penetrate layers of paintings.
It turned out that one of the conservators at the Smithsonian Museum
Conservation Institute [Suitland, Maryland] was looking for something
to do, and he heard about the work that Amanda was doing on suit preservation.
He wanted to know if he could try X-raying a suit to see what’s
inside. We also tried CAT [computed axial tomography] scanning, but
unfortunately the CAT scanner that the Smithsonian has is very limited
in size. We could only do a glove or boot, but you can begin to see
how the interior structure, the structure you couldn’t see between
the pressure layer and the cover layer, was deteriorating and deforming.
The X-rays gave us that added information because using the old wet
check technique of X-ray, Ron [Roland H.] Cunningham could lay out
the suit, lay out all his plates, and go from plate to plate. Then
our photographer could knit all the components together into one big
X-ray so you could see all the infrastructure inside the suit. You
could tell if there was any deformity. You could also see the structure
inside the suit that nobody sees, that people are often surprised
to see. There are wiring and electrodes that go down through the entire
suit, to give them a sense of it’s not just restraint layer,
but also you have electricity going through. You’ve got everything
going through and operating, and how really complex these machines
are to preserve life in space.
Tell us why you have included some Russian spacesuits in the collection.
Well, I came to the Smithsonian as a curator of international space
programs basically. Everything not American was my bailiwick, and
my specialty is Russian and Soviet history. In 1996 we were planning
to redo our Space Hall gallery, and it just so happened that came
a couple of years after the Russians began selling off some of their
space hardware at auction. [H.] Ross Perot purchased many samples
of Soviet hardware, and there were several other collectors as well
and he offered it to us. At the time we thought well, this is a fantastic
opportunity. We can pair Russian and American components and show
the difference between the two sides’ approach to the technologies,
especially during the Cold War when there wasn’t a lot of communication
between the two sides. They were taking very different routes for
the same objective.
It just so happened that at that time when we were preparing the gallery,
that was the beginning of the Shuttle-Mir [Russian space station]
Program. Norman [E.] Thagard had returned. He had gone up on a Soyuz
[Russian space vehicle] and he came back down on a Shuttle. So that
meant, importantly for me, that he brought his suit back with him.
His suit landed in the United States and didn’t go back to Russia,
where they traditionally take them apart.
NASA offered and we accepted to transfer that suit, that so-called
launch and entry suit. The Russians refer to it as an emergency suit.
It came into our collection, then several years later Dennis [A.]
Tito, who was the first space tourist—though he prefers to be
the “first privately-funded space traveler,” which is
much more difficult to say than “space tourist”—went
back to [NPP] Zvezda [Russian aeronautical and space manufacturer]
and purchased his suit after his flight and in turn donated it to
So now in a very odd situation we have the world’s foremost
collection of American spacesuits, but we have no launch and entry
suits from the Shuttle and International Space Station Program, but
we have two Russian suits from that vintage. We’re hoping to
collect more in that area, just documenting it. By virtue of the way
the Russians build their suits, test them and recycle the components,
there are things that become available on eBay [online auction site],
but getting them directly from them with a documented history is much
Were you also able to get a suit that Shannon [W.] Lucid wore when
she was part of the program?
Yes. Shannon Lucid wore a Penguin suit, also made by Zvezda, which
is a prophylactic body-loading suit. She wore it during her stay [aboard
Mir] to try to ameliorate some of the deterioration of muscle loading
capacity, and NASA also donated that. That is one of those suits that
is far more interesting on the inside than the outside. It just looks
like a jumpsuit on the outside, but on the inside you have this very
intricate elastic and pulley system that actually works as simulated
gravity, which the Russians have explored over the years.
I understand the [U.S.] Naval Academy [Annapolis, Maryland] also has
one that they obtained through Wendy [B.] Lawrence, and they have
it on display in Annapolis. It’s a very neat technology, and
it also explains a lot. At the time Americans weren’t working
on it because they weren’t doing long term spaceflight, but
it’s a very important technology. The Russians are very proud
of it because they’ve tried to adapt it for use for other means
on the ground as well.
You mentioned earlier in our talk that you have a new facility that
you’re transitioning into. Tell us about the advantages of being
there, and what will happen to the facility at Suitland.
As I said, the Garber Facility at Suitland is a very old facility.
It was squared away largely by Paul E. Garber, who was our first curator
of the National Air Museum. He managed to get Quonset huts and temporary
buildings built. It’s adjacent to property that the Smithsonian
also owned, and it was able to use that for storage. Having a collection
such as ours, we have 60,000 objects today ranging in size from the
Saturn Vs [rockets] that are around the country on loan, to we have
media bowls that were used to grow cells and tissue culture. We’ve
been storing things at the Garber facility under not ideal circumstances,
not climate-controlled. The advantage and the purpose of building
the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center was to build a state-of-the-art storage
facility where we can have absolute climate control. We were able
to design the facility to fit our collection, which is a wonderful
We had designed a spacesuit room, “my room” as I like
to call it, and it’s actually reserved for rubbers and flight
suits. We designed it to fit the size of the collection, the scope
of the collection, and to fit those rigid requirements for temperature
and humidity control. It’s very controlled access. Even I don’t
have access. Our collections people guard it very seriously, and it’s
actually a room inside a room. The outer room houses fur and leather
collections that had previously not been stored under optimal circumstances,
all with an eye to preserve them for another generation.
We’ve initiated the move from the Garber Facility, moving slowly.
The spacesuits were first. We’ll be moving fur and leather next,
and then small objects. I think the move is now scheduled over the
course of five to seven years, depending on funding and resources.
We’ve had to hire a number of contractors who have developed
expertise in handling objects, packaging objects, finding a way to
package objects so they can have the minimal handling. You can have
a tray for a glove that will pack nicely and stack inside a larger
container, so you can transport that to the new facility and then
pull it out, remove the packing, and put the glove in its final storage
position without touching the glove. That takes a lot of knowledge
and technique and understanding of the fragility of the glove and
how you prepare the glove for storage.
The Garber Facility eventually, once we vacate it—that’s
going to be a very long time, five to seven years just to move the
small and medium objects only. We still have airplane fuselages that
we don’t have the space for. We outgrew our space while we were
planning for it. As we turn over the buildings, the Smithsonian is
hoping to build new expanded improved storage buildings in the area
on the premises. It’s going to take some time, but we’ll
eventually get there. If we can build some larger facilities on the
Hazy grounds that’ll hold the fuselages, we’ll be able
to do it.
An ongoing process.
It’s very long, it’s very time-consuming. But we’re
making slow steps in this progress, and we’re getting a lot
of press coverage as well. People are beginning to understand that
it’s not just putting something in a drawer. Everybody thinks
about Smithsonian storage and they have this vision of the final scenes
from Raiders of the Lost Ark [Indiana Jones film]. It’s not
really like that. We take far more care. You can unpack that crate,
and there would be ethafoam [polyethylene foam] padding around it
and inside. Not the same.
It is, as you mentioned, very fragile and delicate items that you’re
transporting across town, and although it doesn’t seem very
far away sometimes that transportation effort can be a long one.
It’s a very elaborate move. Going from Suitland, Maryland to
Hazy, that’s about 40 miles. But you have to take into consideration
traffic. We have several trucks, one tractor trailer semi. In order
to get from Suitland to Hazy there’s only one time you can do
it, and that’s before dawn. Even then the traffic is horrendous.
Our truck driver who’s been doing this for years moved the aircraft
from Garber to Hazy. He assured me, “Cathy, if you get on the
road by 6:00 a.m. you’ll be fine.”
The first time I did it following the truck, I said, “But Doug,
I went on the road at 6:00. Where did all these people come from?”
I couldn’t believe that there were all these people on the road.
We have the worst traffic in the country in the DC area, so got to
be on the road at 6:00 a.m., and not a chance of making it in 45 minutes.
You have to wait out the traffic. Everything is prepared for storage,
packed, and then stacked in the tractor trailer the night before.
Take the truck out, unload the truck, put everything away, and then
prepare for the next time. It took us about two months. One day packing,
one day unpacking, and we moved 175 suits in that time.
One of the really—what I think—cooler aspects is trying
to figure out how we box the suits. The suits were not in crates in
storage, we came up with the idea. I think it was Hunter’s idea
to use the containers that the coffin companies use to transport coffins.
They’re rugged enough to be able to withstand the weight of
the suit, and they’re also wide enough to hold our largest suits
and some of the hard suits, have a 38-inch width at the shoulder.
We could retrofit them with conservation-correct materials and strap
them down, so we had 13 coffin boxes every other day going out. But
everything was protected. It went really really well, it’s a
great bunch of guys.
Interesting picture of the coffin box with the suits in them.
Yes. Well, they’re cardboard boxes with wooden frames, but coffins
fit into them. It was the only thing we could come up with off-the-shelf
that would fit our suits. Anything else would have been too narrow
or would have been prohibitively expensive.
Perfect, great idea. Before we close this afternoon, I wanted to ask
you—having such hands-on experience with these suits and learning
so much about their history and how each one can tell a story all
of its own, what do you feel is the importance of keeping them and
preserving them? Not just as historic items, but what role do they
play in helping to develop spacesuits for future exploration?
It’s a twofold effort. On one hand the Air and Space Museum
has an agreement with NASA. We get right of first refusal on hardware
when you’re through with it on programmatic use, and we also
stipulate that if there’s ever any call for NASA to look back
at objects they’re always welcome. And we will give things back.
We worked that way with the [OV-101] Enterprise. We lent back the
leading edges of the wings, the landing gear.
We’ve had a number of groups of engineers from JSC, from the
various contractors, come in and look at our suit collection, just
as a way of training the next generation to see what’s been
tried in the past. That’s always very important, because there
are no textbooks on suit development. People tend to forget. They
see the finished product but they don’t remember oh, we tried
this, this, this and this, and we finally decided that this is the
only way given these limitations that you can work out a shoulder
joint in these confined spaces. So we work in that way.
On the other hand there’s the public aspect, which is really
fascinating because the museum routinely has family days when they
bring in demonstrations. ILC comes out and brings parts of gloves
and other suit components. Recently we had people from [NASA] Goddard
[Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland] working on the Hubble Space
Telescope repair who had tools and equipment that was used in the
Hubble Space Telescope.
There’s just nothing as wonderful as seeing a kids’ eyes
light up when they realize that they have their hand in that glove,
that thick bulky glove, that has all these layers for a reason. You
can explain to them what each layer does, and they have to be able
to hold this tool and operate this tool. What amazing amount of engineering
and science goes into that, explains that. That’s generating
the newer generation. Not just the new generation of engineers and
technicians, but the newer generation of kids who understand that—as
I said, these are really complex machines. They work a purpose, and
they took a lot of time and energy. Just as there are many layers
of the suit, there are many layers of the work that goes into that.
Kids are always very fascinated.
As I said, the suits are very charismatic objects. They’re very
personal. Children understand, everyone understands them at some level
of what they have to do to function. Showing them the inside out,
explaining the layers—really it’s a wonderful feeling
when you see that light up—“Oh, to be able to do that...
How can you grip that? Why do you make these tools with these huge
knobs?”—it makes sense. That thought process is wonderful.
Well, thank you. I really appreciate you sharing some of the insights
of what you do and what happens to the suits, and all that’s
being done up there to make sure the suits are saved for the next
generation. Thank you again for today.
I’m very glad to.