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Hands and Gloves in Space

Posted on Thu, January 8, 2015
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There is a common saying that the hands are where the mind meets the world. In space there is no direct contact between the mind and the world. This transaction is mediated by the artificial structures called gloves. I came to realize the extent of this interference most profoundly several weeks ago when I saw a display at the Kennedy Space Center, in the Visitor Saturn V building. There, next to the gloves that Allan Shepard wore while on the surface of the Moon during his Apollo 14 mission are the original plaster casts of the hands of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11. I have known that these casts had existed. Thirty-four of them adorned a cover of Life magazine in the late 1960s. I had never personally seen a set before, even though their by-products are part of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's collection. Viewing them first hand is an awe-inspiring experience on the level of viewing life masks of historic figures.

Hand-cast at the Kennedy Center.

Hand-cast object on display at the Kennedy Center.

 

Making plaster casts of the astronauts' hands was the first step in creating custom form-fitting gloves. The casts on display at Kennedy had an eerie air to them. The use of plaster in the original hand molds had shown its age over time. The plaster hands of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, who were in their late thirties at the time, look more like the hands of much older men as the material has contracted, leaving deep crevices where faint joint lines had once been. Still, the casts hold time still, revealing recent manicures just prior to their creation and variation among individuals of the "neutral" hand position. As I said, the plaster casts were but the first step in creating gloves for the Apollo astronauts. In order to allow the astronauts to do meaningful manual labor on the surface of the Moon, gloves had to fit their hands as closely as possible. In the Mercury and Gemini programs, glove sizing had been approximate, following the standard for pilots' flight gloves. Then, the expectation was that operating a glove under pressurization would be the exception and not the rule. For a man to walk on the Moon, gloves would have to fit snuggly, retain pressure, and cause as little irritation as possible to the delicate human hand. In order to accomplish this, engineers went back to a 1915 patent for a seamless rubber glove. Ohioan Thomas W. Miller proposed a then-new approach to the glove dip process to form a seamless glove with a lining of textile fabric on its inner surface. The original idea was to manufacture a comfortable glove for industrial purposes. Miller's idea was later refined for medical and ultimately for home use in the form of Playtex gloves.

Armstrong's Glove Dip Forms

<p><span>These black rubber hand shapes are forms used in the construction of Neil Armstrong's Apollo pressure gloves.</span></p>

In the case of the Apollo spacesuit gloves, from the plaster casts, technicians created solid black rubber glove dip forms, of which we have many in the collection. Lost in the transition from plaster casts to glove dip forms are the fine details of the human hand. The joints are exaggerated to allow for air displacement as the fingers bend and the hand flex. Only the anatomical measurements of the hands and fingers are preserved. The glove bladder, a result of dipping a synthetic glove wrapped around the form into neoprene, was hand-sewn into a restraint system that prevented the gloves from ballooning and the astronaut from losing grip from inside the spacesuit. The restraint and dipped glove system is easy to see in the Intravehicular (IV) gloves that astronauts wore inside the spacecraft, but a similar, more protective system comprised the lunar Extravehicular (EV) gloves that 12 astronauts wore while they worked on the surface of the Moon.

Armstrong's Right Glove

<p>This right intervehicular glove was worn by Neil Armstrong during Apollo 11.</p>

Armstrong's Left Glove

<p>Neil Armstrong wore this intravehicular glove during Apollo 11. </p>

Armstrong's EV Gloves

<p>These Extra-Vehicular (EV) gloves were made for and worn by astronaut Neil Armstrong, Commander of the Apollo 11 mission in July, 1969.</p>

So here in five pictures, one can see the process through which astronauts' minds, and hands, are separated from the world of space. Layers of necessary protection have been designed to minimize the intrusion between the hand and the world that it is exploring. Even with the delicate refinements that designers have made, the gloves still intrude on the mind-world interaction. It is a continuing goal of spacesuit designers to further reduce that intrusion.

Want to see more gloves? See our spacesuit glove interactive, part of our new exhibition celebrating 50 years of spacewalks.