I’m old enough to remember bra ads that looked like the left side of the image above. And I’m delighted to see several media outlets covering a previously ignored story: the Apollo 11 spacesuits — the ones that the first men on the moon wore — were designed and made by women who worked for Playtex, known only for bras and girdles.
One of the underrated technical challenges of going to the Moon was designing the spacesuits. The suits had to be inflated and pressurized from the inside—meaning, they had to carry around a tiny version of the atmosphere human beings require to stay alive. The suits were, in essence, sophisticated balloons.
They also had to be tough, able to withstand a temperature range of perhaps 500º, from –280º in shadow to +240º in sun, as well as survive being hit by a micrometeorite going 36,000 mph while astronauts were wearing them.
The most daunting challenge? The suits also had to be flexible.
Astronauts had to be able to move with almost the same freedom, flexibility, and nimbleness that they would on Earth. They had to be able to climb, bend over, twist and look around, and most difficult of all, move their arms and hands so they could get anything done on the surface of the Moon or while spacewalking. The gloves, said one official, should allow an astronaut to pick up a dime.
Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon 50 years ago this week. I remember it; almost everyone my age and even 10-12 years younger remembers it. Thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly’s best-selling book Hidden Figures, and the movie made from it, many of us now know more about the Black women like Katherine Johnson who were essential to the calculations behind the space program, but until this week I didn’t know about the women who were essential to the spacesuits.
Playtex’s first challenges were political. The big tech companies of the 1960s wanted this gig, and many decision-makers didn’t take a bra-and-girdle company as a serious contender.
At one point, Playtex won the contract to make the suits, was made a subcontractor to Hamilton Standard but then, in a dramatic turn in 1965, was fired by Hamilton Standard, which wanted the suit contract for itself.
Then there was a competition, but Playtex wasn’t invited. Playtex executives pushed their way in (at their own expense), and in six weeks the company designed and built a suit which (among other tests) was field-tested on a high-school football field, and passed with flying colors.
The technical challenges were perhaps more daunting than the political ones:
The sewing of the astronauts’ suits turned out to be daunting and demanding. Playtex, which renamed its industrial division ILC Dover during the spacesuit work (after its Delaware headquarters), brought skilled seamstresses over from its consumer products factories. “I was sewing [latex] baby pants,” said Eleanor Foraker, who would go on to be a spacesuit assembly supervisor, “and an engineer came to me and asked me if I would mind trying something else.”
Some of the layers were, in fact, composed of bra and girdle material, including nylon tricot.
The suits were a huge success, and Neil Armstrong wrote a fan letter about them. In the most important victory for Playtex, “that same division of Playtex, now the independent company ILC Dover, still makes every NASA spacesuit, from its headquarters at 1 Moonwalker Road.”
I am no longer amazed by how many ways women’s contributions are replaced from history that is framed as entirely male, and I have never been surprised by the vast range of skills women continuously bring to the table. And yet, this story is especially delightful, partly because the tech involved is coded so essentially female (bras and girdles!) and partly because it’s just amusing to think of those hyper-male-hero astronauts with their lives depending on nylon tricot.