The NASA spacesuit is a marvel of engineering. A spacesuit must protect the person inside from a variety of conditions that are incompatible with life, yet allow the astronaut to move and work. During preparation for the Apollo missions to the moon, NASA held competitions to decide how the spacesuits would be made, and who would make them. The surprising winner was Playtex. Yes, the folks who made bras and girdles. But is it really so surprising? Who knew more about latex and engineering than the former International Latex Corporation? Who knew more about making garments that worked than the company that made the Living Bra? Well, it was surprising at the time. The Credits spoke to Nicholas de Monchaux, author of the book Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, about the suit Playtex made and the upcoming movie based on his book. Here's a sample:
It’s so incredible to think that Playtex entered this competition to design the Apollo spacesuit against all these military firms and won.
Yes. And of course all of the competing suits were designed much more like the missiles and the weapons that the rest of the NASA equipment was adapted from, which is to say designed from their first principles in a very structured way, which works very well when you’re designing that kind of thing, but it turns out it works terribly when you’re designing for the body. The charm of the story is that Playtex, and in particular this kind of obsessive self-taught engineer who was originally a television repair man and Playtex’s founder (Abram Nathaniel Spanel), entered a suit made by his team into the first call that NASA had for Apollo suits. The fact that he thought they could make a suit better than any of these military contractors who’d been making flight suits for years is amazing. But the power of the story is that once that suit was submitted to NASA it was so much better than any of the others that they had to take the firm seriously.
So how did they have any idea how to begin if they designed girdles and bras?
It wasn’t totally unheard of. The Army and Navy had involved corset makers in World War II when they were making the kind of suits that put pressure on the body that helped pilots survive maneuvers, so it wasn’t totally outlandish. But on the other hand, the solution and the actual technology that this guy Len Shepard invented was completely novel, and it was based on a Frankenstein reassembly of all of the ingredients of underwear and bras, the same fabrics and straps and Latex, into this thing called a convolute, which was a special joint material that Playtex invented that allowed its suit to work better than anybody else’s.