The spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong is a tangible link to one of humankind’s greatest scientific achievements, so getting to see it in person is pretty darn special. And for curators at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), preserving this feat of engineering and design for the curious eyes of future generations is a high priority.
Unfortunately, the 21 layers of various plastics that make up the suit have been slowly degrading in the 49 years since it was worn. In 2016, the museum had to take it out of public display and store it in a carefully controlled case in order to slow the materials’ decay. According to The New York Times, it is the layer of neoprene and natural rubber deep within the suit that poses the biggest challenge.
Used in the joints and the “bladder layer” (the component that maintains pressure and seals in oxygen) of suits from NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, rubber performs admirably in the short-term – but it is not stable for long.
“There were signs of degradation six months off the shelf,” Cathleen S Lewis, the NASM curator in charge of the space suits, said in 2011. “But the rubber did work well enough to get the astronauts to the Moon and back.”
This immediate damage occurred, in part, because soon after their use, the suits were widely exhibited and transported between facilities with little regard to the humidity, sunlight, and light they were being exposed to.
“People thought, ‘If they can survive the rigors of space flight, they can survive anything.’ Unfortunately, that’s not true,” she added, explaining that there’s a myth that the materials used for the space program were newly developed and high-tech. But in reality, suit designers strapped for time turned to common, household plastic materials.
The types of rubber around during that time are very sensitive to oxidation, meaning that over time, oxygen and other gases present in the air will steal electrons from the rubber molecules. This changes the bonds between them in such a way that the material becomes stiff and brittle, and thus very difficult to move.
The neoprene layer inside Neil Armstrong’s suit has already shattered into small pieces, and examination of the suit after it was moved to storage further revealed that the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) air tubes had shrunk and a plasticizer agent within the material leaked out and stained the fabric on the left torso area. PVC and many other plastics degrade in this way because the molecules within are slowly rearranging themselves into more efficiently packed clusters. The process is sped up by heat and, in some cases, UV radiation.
But despite its poor state at the moment, the public will soon get to visit this awesome artifact once again. Hoping to begin costly conservation and repair efforts (that are not covered in their federal budget) in time for the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing in 2019, and to build a new climate and light-controlled display case for a long-term public exhibition slated to open in 2020, the Smithsonian launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign, called “Reboot The Suit”, back in 2015. In the time since, more than $719,500 has been raised, greatly surpassing its $500,000 goal.
Now, construction of the case has begun and the additional funds have been put toward restoring the suit worn by Alan Shephard during his historic 1961 space flight.