Reviewed by: Mark Lardas
Title: Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Spacesuit
Author: Bill Ayrey
NSS Amazon link for this book
Publisher: University Press of Florida
Date: October 2020
Retail Price: $35.00/$30.99
The most iconic images of man’s presence on the Moon are photographs of astronauts standing on the Moon’s surface in distinctive Apollo-era spacesuits. The white suits were miniature spacecraft, offering life support while providing both the mobility and the flexibility to explore the Moon thoroughly.
Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Spacesuit, by Bill Ayrey tells the history of their design, development and manufacture. The story Ayrey tells is archetypally American yet sometimes seems so improbable had it been fiction an editor would have rejected it. That is part of the fun of reading this book.
ILC – International Latex Corporation – designed and built the Apollo spacesuit. It was not an aerospace company before entering the spacesuit business. It started in the 1930s manufacturing latex consumer products, things like shower caps. Its best-known division is Playtex. During World War II they manufactured rafts and collapsible canteens. After that war, long before space travel and much less manned spaceflight, management became fascinated with the idea of building a spacesuit. They anticipated the demand, spending corporate money developing spacesuits throughout the early 1950s.
They were not rocket scientists. When they started they did not understand configuration management or systems engineering. As Ayrey shows, neither the owner nor most of the development team even had college degrees. What they had was an intimate knowledge of producing soft goods, ingenuity and perseverance.
Ayrey charts the course ILC followed to break into the spacesuit business and eventually win the contract to build the spacesuits used in the Apollo program. They were used inside the capsule, on the Moon’s surface and for extravehicular spacewalks during Apollo, Skylab, and ASTP. He shows the challenges ILC faced and the difficulties they overcame.
He follows the story from the company’s 1930s beginnings through the end of involvement with Apollo hardware. He concludes with ILC’s parking lot sale of much of its remaining hardware in March 1975. He closes with a discussion of the conservation, preservation, and restoration of spacesuit artifacts.
For those who want more, Ayrey closes Lunar Outfitters with four appendices. The first details technical specifications of an Apollo spacesuit. It provides almost enough information to allow a reader to build one. Other appendices list the serial numbers associated with the spacesuits and their parts, contract information associated with the Apollo spacesuits and the code names used to keep crew identities a secret when building the suits.
Ayrey might be the perfect person to tell the story. He joined ILC in 1977 as a temporary job to earn money to pay for an advanced degree. He moved into ILC’s test laboratory, which developed spacesuits, and stayed, eventually rising to manage the laboratory. Along the way he became entranced with the spacesuit history and became ILC’s unofficial spacesuit historian.
Lunar Outfitters is a rare and rewarding book. Ayres goes into the complexity of both spacesuit design and quality management in straightforward language. He provides copious illustrations. Without stinting on detail he explains things in language those without an engineering background can easily understand. Along the way he tells a story that is engaging and entertaining.
© 2021 Mark Lardas
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