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Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit by Bill Ayrey
Dwayne A. Day
Quest Volume: 28 #3 (2021)
Back in the early 2000s I paid a visit to ILC Dover in Delaware and got a very nice tour of their facilities. I was accompanied by Glen Swanson, the first editor of Quest. Our guide was probably—I cannot remember for sure—Bill Ayrey, who was both an engineer and in essence the company’s historian. Ayrey knew just about everything there was to know about space suits and showed us how they were manufactured and changed over the years.
Now Ayrey has written a book about how ILC Industries (the company’s earlier name) built the Apollo space suits. There have been a number of companies that have manufactured space suits for NASA, not to mention pressure suits for the Air Force. ILC is probably the most well-known, having made both the Apollo suit and the later Space Shuttle suits. His book is more of a corporate history about ILC’s work on the Apollo suit than a general history of space suits.
ILC’s initial debut into the field was complicated. In 1962, ILC bid on the Apollo suit. NASA chose to combine two bids in its contract award, giving the main contract to Hamilton Standard and making ILC a subcontractor to Hamilton. Such forced partnerships have never worked well in the aerospace field because prime contractors always resent having to share the money with a company they consider inferior, and soon Hamilton sought to get rid of ILC, claiming that the company was doing lousy work. ILC asked NASA to re-bid the contract, the agency did, and this time ILC won, and Hamilton Standard was kicked to the curb. (A similar situation was repeated decades later, and there’s an interesting article to be written about the convoluted, contentious, and bitter rivalries of various groups seeking to develop new space suits in the past decade or so.)
ILC’s Apollo space suit design was clever and effective. It kept the astronauts cool in the blazing sun and provided sufficient mobility for them to operate on the lunar surface, eventually for many hours. Considering that it was the first-ever suit used on another world, it is rather amazing that it worked as well as it did. Nevertheless, the early Apollo astronauts encountered a number of limitations and annoyances that they wanted improved, and ILC engineers made modifications for later suits. But by the final Apollo missions the suits were being used on lengthy EVAs and the highly abrasive lunar dust was wearing down metal joints. Had Apollo missions continued with more or longer EVAs, the suits would have required even further modifications, a problem that anybody designing a lunar space suit today will have to tackle.
After Apollo ended, ILC’s cash flow decreased dramatically, the company laid off much of its workforce, and it faced bankruptcy. Fortunately, the company won the contract for the Space Shuttle suit. A variant of the Shuttle suit is still in use today, with a life support system provided by a company that is the descendant, after multiple mergers, of Hamilton Standard. Unlike the Apollo suit, astronauts in Shuttle suits cannot bend their legs, and there are other important differences that make the Shuttle suits unable to be used on the Moon.
Ayrey’s history includes technical discussions, anecdotes, and corporate history. It is a thick book, well-illustrated, and an excellent addition to the existing literature on this subject. Hopefully, as NASA seeks to return astronauts to the Moon, there’s somebody collecting information on the current efforts to develop a new space suit for a future book to join this one. We can also hope that current space suit designers are reading Ayrey’s book and learning the lessons it has to teach.
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Title: Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit
Author: Bill Ayrey
Publisher: University Press of Florida
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