There is a new display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. Along the south wall of the James S. McDonnell Space Hanger, in a large storefront case, are the extravehicular (EV) gloves and visor that Neil Armstrong wore when he first stepped on the surface of the Moon on July 20, 1969. These three components of Armstrong’s A7-L spacesuit are a small portion of what hundreds of millions of people saw on the television broadcast of his first steps on the lunar surface. But they are also the most immediately identifiable. The gloves have the blue silicone fingertips and the stainless steel fabric that wraps the hands with the long white gauntlet with instructions printed on the left one. The visor is the giant sun goggles that astronauts needed to survive in absence of the Sun-filtering effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. These objects were placed on display on Tuesday afternoon as part of the Museum’s memorialization of Neil Armstrong’s life.
The first question that might come to mind to many of the visitors seeing the gloves and visor is why these components and not the rest of his spacesuit? The short answer to that question is that the Museum is trying to preserve Armstrong’s suit and all the other spacesuits in the national collection for generations to come. When the news of Neil Armstrong’s death was released to the public, I was shopping for a swim team picnic and immediately began to text our spacesuit conservator, Lisa Young. We both immediately recognized that the significance of Armstrong’s life and his role in the space program called for a significant action on the part of the Museum. The components of Armstrong’s spacesuit that he returned from the Moon have been on display almost continuously from the time in 1973 when NASA transferred them to the Museum until 2001 when my predecessor Amanda Young made the very difficult decision to remove them for conservation purposes. Objects in the spacesuit collection are rotated on and off display based on their individual needs as determined by Museum collections specialists. The climate and display conditions in the existing display were not ideal for preserving the spacesuit for decades. The natural deterioration processes of the synthetic materials; interactions between components of the suit, humidity, light and the traditional upright display position were all contributing to a worsening condition of the suit. By 2001, Lisa Young had determined that storage conditions of a moderate temperature (60 degrees Fahrenheit or 15.5 degrees Celsius) and low relative humidity (<30%) are the ideal conditions to maximize the stabilization of the materials in the suit. Once removed from display, Neil Armstrong’s suit was stored under those conditions for 10 years, first at the Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, and more recently at the Museum’s modern storage facility at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Lisa and I decided that these three of all the suit components were the best able to withstand the hazards of display outside of their storage containers for a brief period of time.
Once we made that decision, a remarkable number of Museum divisions had to come into play to make the display happen. The Exhibits Design and Exhibits Production units had to approve a design and location including approving, editing, and producing exhibit labels. The Smithsonian’s Office of Protection Services had to ensure that the display conditions met the Institution’s monitoring requirements. Our chief conservator, Malcolm Collum, swung into action in the midst of moving his laboratory from Suitland to the Udvar-Hazy Center and produced a detailed condition report prior to display. Our mount maker, Glenn Rankin, had to build new mounts to fit the glove and the visor that met both conservation and exhibit requirements. Then Samantha Snell, Jeannie Whited, and Jennifer Stringfellow of the Collections Division worked to assure that the transport of the artifacts from storage to the Conservation lab and finally to display went smoothly and without incident.
The gloves and visor will be on display for about two weeks. When they return to storage, we hope that it will not be for another decade. Neil Armstrong’s death has emphasized to all of us at the Museum the importance of sharing our precious collections related to the Apollo program with the public. The Museum plans to complete a renovation of its Apollo to the Moon gallery on display at the Museum in Washington, DC. The new gallery, which is planned for 2018, will tell the story of how the United States built the Apollo program in eight years on the basis of 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience. In that gallery, visitors, including those who have no personal memory of seeing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969, will see his spacesuit kit and other personal materials on display. At that time, the suit and its components will be displayed under conditions that will come close to our storage standards. Once we have established these new display standards for our spacesuit collection, we will be able to share more of our collection with the public while preserving it so that visitors will be able to view it for generations.
Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.
All photos by Dane Penland, National Air and Space Museum, unless otherwise noted.
Because of the fragility of the suits, the Air and Space Museum joined with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) to create Suited for Space based on Amanda Young and Mark Avino’s book, Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection. Near full-sized images of spacesuits from the Museum’s collection bring you up close, and x-rays give you the inside-look at some suits and their components. The exhibit is currently showing at the Center for Earth and Space Science in Tyler, Texas and will open at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in July 2013.