Conserving Michael Collins' Apollo 11 Razor

Posted on Mon, February 3, 2020
  • by: Karen Wilcox
favorite

Conservators at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center are busy preparing objects for display in our updated galleries as part of the transformation of the Museum in DC. This includes inspecting the condition of each artifact, so that if any deterioration is discovered it can be stabilized to ensure its long-term preservation.

One artifact being prepared is astronaut Michael Collins’ shaving set, which travelled with him on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. The set consists of a tube of “Old Spice Brushless” shaving cream and a “Gillette Techmatic” razor. During examination of the razor, areas of degradation were discovered, combined with evidence of Collins’ use while working and living in the Command Module Columbia during the iconic mission. This presented conservators with a complex ethical dilemma for deciding the best treatment approach: how to arrest degradation while maintaining the historical elements of the artifact.

‘Old Spice Brushless’ shaving cream and a ‘Gillette Techmatic’ razor before conservation treatment.

The Razor

The “Gillette Techmatic” razor was designed with a novel solution for changing the blade. The cream-colored plastic head is actually a removable cartridge with a spooled stainless-steel blade. Once the edge became dull, the lever on the back could be used to wind it onto the next portion of the blade. The progression of numbers on the front of the cartridge indicated when it needed to be changed, and it could be unclipped and removed by pressing the silver-colored button at its base. The smaller black-colored dial from ‘LO’ to ‘HI’ would adjust how close the shave was (set to ‘HI’ in this case).

Back (left) and front (right) of the razor, showing the dials and levers for adjusting the razor blade.

We analyzed the metallic casing with X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy to characterize its elemental constituents. Nickel, copper, and zinc were detected, as indicated in the spectra below. This suggests it is likely either a ‘nickel silver’ alloy or nickel-plated brass. The blade was also analyzed, and the major constituents were iron and chromium, which is consistent with advertisements from the time identifying it as stainless-steel.

  • Spectra

    Spectra from the analysis of the metallic case using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, showing the major elemental components.

  • spectra

    Spectra from the analysis of the blade using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, showing the major elemental components.

Use by Collins

During the Apollo 11 mission, both the razor and the shaving cream were used by Collins, and our goal was to preserve any evidence of this use. The “Old Spice” tube was crumpled, with partial loss of the label, and some dried residue around the cap. It was largely stable and did not require treatment.

Much to our surprise, the razor still had hair and cream-colored residues lodged in the blade and on the handle. Unlike on Earth, where water streaming from a faucet is used to clean up during shaving, it is likely Collins could only use sparing amounts of shaving cream and a dry towel to clean up. These residues of shaving cream and hair illustrate how astronauts performed their daily hygiene and are a significant part of the object. Therein lay our problem.

  • cap of shaving cream

    Wear and tear evident on the tube of ‘Old Spice Brushless’ shaving cream.

  • detail on razor handle

    Powdery, cream-colored 'gunk' caught around the raised detail of the ‘Techmatic’ razor handle.

Condition

A thick, green-colored waxy spot was identified on the exterior of the metallic casing as needing treatment. This is a form of copper-based corrosion, where a reaction is occurring with the copper in the alloy of the metallic casing, as identified in the XRF analysis. The corrosion was also found in the oval-shaped cutouts in the blade – along with hair fibers which could only belong to Michael Collins!

Hair and other material caught in the razor blade from use along with the waxy, green-colored corrosion, which has formed on the surface.

Based on these initial observations, the razor was disassembled to reveal the full extent of the issue. We found a large amount of corrosion had formed on the inside of the metallic casing, with some transferring onto the stainless-steel blade.

Inside the metal casing (left) and the cartridge blade (right).

Highly-magnified images reveal how closely embedded the corrosion product is with the hair and other material, which complicates the treatment. 

Photomicrographs of the embedded hair fibers with the corrosion product.

A Conservation Dilemma

The corrosion should be removed because it can generate further reactions with the underlying metal substrate, and, due to its waxy consistency, it can easily transfer and stain surrounding materials. Our first inclination was to carefully extract it, but gentle probing revealed how unstable the whole closely-embedded accretion was.

We had three options:

  1. Remove as much of the corrosion as possible by gently picking, but with consequent removal of some of the hair and accretions. Some of this evidence of use would remain in areas unaffected by corrosion, such as under the stainless-steel blade, and any material removed could be retained separately as a sample.
  2. Leave as is and monitor.
  3. Remove all the affected material, clean and separate out the hair fibers, and then return them to the razor. With this approach the cream-colored accretions would be lost – likely the residual shaving cream, but the hair could be retained within the object.

The decision was strongly dependent on what is determined to be of high value to the razor’s material authenticity. Is it the razor itself, or the razor with its evidence of use?

In conservation, we often talk of inherent vice. This is used to describe an unstable material, such as plasticized polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, which readily discolors, weeps, and breaks down. Or, it could be where the constituent materials in a composite object are incompatible, such as off-gassing from plastic tubing causing corrosion as was detailed in a previous blog post about an Apollo Biomedical Sensor (https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/triage-treatment-apollo-biomedical-sensors). Where vice exists within integral components of an object, the goal for conservators is to reduce the rate of reaction by isolating the incompatible materials, such as applying an acrylic coating in the Apollo Biomedical Sensor, or limiting environmental accelerants by controlling the relative humidity of the storage or display environment.

In this case, if the corrosion is due to the shaving cream and hair affecting the metal substrate, but as evidence of use they are considered integral components of the razor, this becomes analogous to a form of inherent vice. After all, part of the significance of the razor is also making it unstable. Thus, option 2 of leaving as is and monitoring becomes a viable possibility.

Our Decision

The small spot of corrosion product on the exterior of the casing was removed, but the accumulation inside was left untouched. The razor will be periodically monitored for any further deterioration and it will be displayed in a controlled museum environment in the forthcoming Destination Moon exhibition when it opens in 2024.

This decision was strongly dependent on the type of the copper-based corrosion found here. When the spot on the exterior was removed, the metal surface was examined under the microscope and it appeared unaffected. The corrosion creates a dramatic visual impression, but only a small amount of copper is being drawn from the alloy and the impact to the object is minor.

In this case, controlling the environment (particularly the relative humidity) and monitoring is the best decision – especially when the alternative is to remove the evidence of use from such a significant moment in history.


Karen Wilcox is an Engen Post-Graduate Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum.