Today is a rather big day for the Museum. Not only are we celebrating the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, but we are also celebrating the launch of something quite new. Today, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has embarked on its very first project through Kickstarter, a global platform that helps bring creative projects to life. Why? It’s simple. We want to conserve, digitize, and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon landing. This will be the first time the suit is displayed publicly since 2006. To shed some light on this project, curator Cathy Lewis has agreed to answer all of our burning questions. Cathy, who has worked with the Museum’s spacesuits since 2009, along with conservator Lisa Young, will lead the charge in conserving Armstrong’s suit. In future posts, Lisa will share insights into the conservation process, but to get us started Cathy shares some basics on the Museum’s Kickstarter project, #RebootTheSuit.
Q: What does the Museum plan to do with Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit?
A: We are going to carefully document the suit through photographic, chemical, and historical research in a more detailed way than we have ever been able to do before. We plan to use state-of-the-art techniques in 3D scanning, photogrammetry, chemical analysis, CT scanning, and other means available to create a detailed map of the suit that will document its condition in the most complete way possible. We will supplement this information with detailed historical research on how the suit and its components were made, used during the mission, and handled after flight. This research will inform a condition assessment that will help us create the appropriate atmosphere environment for public display while preserving the suit in its current condition.
Q: Why is this work necessary?
A: Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit was made for the very specific purpose of preserving human life in the harsh conditions of space and the surface of the Moon for a very brief period of time. The spacesuit was constructed from a combination of 12 synthetic materials with as many as 21 layers. These materials have a half-life of approximately 50 years and have begun the inevitable process of degrading. Some of the materials have begun to interact with others. What’s more, many of the layers of Armstrong’s spacesuit have remained unseen for decades, which means we have been unable to monitor their condition. Now, with advances in conservation and imaging technology, we can document and monitor the suit’s condition inside and out.
Q: If funded, the project won’t be complete until 2019. Why will this take so long?
A: Museum conservation and historical research are deliberately slow activities. We only have one opportunity to get this right. Every single movement of the suit, activity, and treatment will be diligently researched and rehearsed in advance. This work will require the advice of experts nationwide, including those who contributed to making the suit and its materials, those who cared for it during the Apollo program, as well as materials experts throughout the world. Research, meetings, and mastering new techniques take time. There is only one Neil Armstrong spacesuit.
Q: Will the suit look any different when it is done?
A: No. The suit will look the same to the untrained eye. However, thanks to the information that will be gained from this project, we will have the opportunity to share a far more informed and holistic view of how the suit was worn and used. Everything that we discover will be made available to the public and will help us collectively see this historic artifact with new eyes.
Q: Why can’t the Smithsonian pay for this project on its own?
A: Federal appropriations cover approximately 64 cents of every dollar needed by the Smithsonian. Private philanthropy, including this Kickstarter campaign, help to bridge the gap between the Federal resources the Smithsonian receives and what it needs to carry out innovative research, digitize its collections, open exhibitions, and expand educational outreach. In short, you play a vital role in helping us achieve our goals.
Q: If this project isn’t fully backed, what will happen to the suit?
A: Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is currently stored in a state-of-the art facility with strict climate controls. We have determined that these storage conditions will keep the suit stable for many, many years. If the project is not funded, the suit will remain safe in its current storage. Funding will still need to be found elsewhere in order to conserve and publicly display the suit, but it is unlikely that would happen in time for the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, an event that is sure to be recognized around the world.
Have more questions about the Museum’s Kickstarter project #RebootTheSuit? Leave us a comment and Cathy (or Lisa, or I) will respond! You can also learn more at our Kickstarter project page, which also happens to be the place where you can back the project. We hope you’ll join us in this exciting new adventure, whether you back or simply help us spread the word.