One of the joys of working with an archive is unearthing the unexpected. Even with a clear research goal in mind—in my case, cataloguing and reviewing historical records pertaining to spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore on the Moon—it is all too easy to find oneself being detoured down a rabbit hole. So when an avowed space nerd like me gets the opportunity to spend time in archives as impressive as both the Smithsonian Institution’s and the National Air and Space Museum’s, well, let’s just say that my journey down research road was a bit circuitous. More often than not, I was lured away from my original focus by documents that were only tangentially related to the project but proved to be fascinating in their own right. Here are a few of my favorite findings:
A memo signed by Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. This was hardly a surprise as he was the first director of the Museum. He also happens to be my favorite astronaut, so I may or may not have inadvertently let out a shriek of delight upon seeing it (my apologies to the startled researchers sitting nearby). In the days and weeks spent pouring over boxes of documents, I ended up seeing quite a few memos from him, many of which were signed, “With all best wishes, Mike” which only endeared him to me further. In case you weren’t able to see him, along with Jeff Bezos and David Rubenstein, speak at the Museum this past June at the annual Glenn Lecture, you can watch the entire event here.
A personal letter from science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The first thing that caught my eye on this document was the handwritten “Isaac” boldly scrawled at the bottom. I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t that be funny if that was Isaac Asim... oh wait… it is!” Sure enough, tucked in former Assistant Director of Astronautics Fred Durant’s archives, was a personal letter from Isaac Asimov, arguably the greatest science fiction author of our time. Imagine having him as your pen pal.
An original button commemorating the historic Apollo 11 flight. The space program generated quite a bit of memorabilia, including a variety of medals, some Snoopy stuff, a cardboard hat, and, um, cigarettes. Amidst all the flat archival papers was a little bumpy envelope, housing this button.
One heck of a story. Often, when recounting the early days of the space program, the vital role women played tends to get neglected. Sure, we didn’t walk on the lunar surface but we were responsible for writing the Apollo Guidance Computer source code, hand-sewing the thousands of precise stitches needed to make a pressurized spacesuit, and calculating the trajectory for the first American in space. Without these contributions, there would have been no men on the Moon. I discovered yet another supporting role that women played. A memo from 1971 called for the recruitment of 200 women for a less-than-glamorous skin toxicity test. Small patches, both with the unnamed mystery ingredient and without, were to be “applied to the inner portion of the upper arm” for 48 hours. After two days, the skin would be examined for approximately 20 minutes by a dermatologist. An observed redness would indicate a “positive skin reaction” with “the intensity of the redness indica[ting] the severity of the skin toxicity and/or irritation.” So far, I’ve yet to come across any findings or determine why women were specifically used (particularly given that there were no female astronauts at this time).
What Happens when you don’t find all the answers you are looking for?
The research doesn’t stop here. In fact, you can help us! One of the goals of the Reboot the Suit Kickstarter Campaign is to create a concrete visual timeline of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit—from when it was manufactured until long after it returned from the Moon. Doing so will help conservators determine when repairs were made and when unknown stains and blemishes first appeared. Pinpointing these allows experts to establish which changes occurred as a result of the Moon landing (and, thus, is historical evidence which should be preserved) and which happened while here on Earth (necessitating conservation treatment). Dig through your files, page through your scrapbooks, or pilfer your grandparents’ memorabilia and help us find photographs, newspaper clippings, or anything that shows the spacesuit on display. We’re looking for photos of the suit from its national tour beginning in 1970, the gloves and helmet on later tours, and the spacesuit on display at the Smithsonian between 1971 and 1976. You can help our experts conserve Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit simply by sending your photos to ArmstrongSuit@si.edu.