Restoring the Apollo Telescope Mount

Posted on Thu, December 10, 2015
  • by: Scott Willey

This past year, I had the opportunity to lead a largely volunteer team, with supervision from museum specialist Anne McCombs and curator David DeVorkin, on a major restoration project of the Museum’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). The ATM we worked on was a backup to the one used in 1973 on the Skylab space station to study high-energy solar activity. One of our first tasks was assessing the ATM’s spar, the aluminum platform that eight major instruments were mounted to. When we uncrated the spar in September 2014, we discovered that after 40 years the Kapton®—the shiny, crinkly material you can often see on satellites and in this case the black material you can see in our photos—was in really poor condition. Kapton® is a polyimide film that was developed by DuPont in the late 1960s and has been used widely in the aerospace industry to protect objects from heat.

Apollo Telescope Mount Spar Before Restoration

The Apollo Telescope Mount's spar (the aluminum platform that instruments mount to) before restoration in 2014. 

We were unsure at first how to repair the Kapton® so that we could properly display the artifact. For help, we went straight to the source—DuPont. A technical service consultant from DuPont listened as we explained our situation. After thinking back to Kapton® technology of the time period, our consultant recommended that we use Kapton® tapes made from current Kapton® sheets and 3M™ 966 transfer tape (a very thin adhesive film). What’s more, our consultant—along with several other technical service, research, development, and marketing people from the Circleville, Ohio facility—provided our team with a dozen complimentary sample sheets of current Kapton® products. With advice and materials from DuPont, I began work. I laid out the 25.4-millimeter (1-inch) wide transfer (double-sided) tape in rows on a Kapton® sheet and then cut the sheet into 25.4-millimeter (1-inch) wide self-adhering tapes. For larger repairs, I found that adhesive tape on the edges of a Kapton® patch worked well. We found that one particular product looked the best when we compared it to the decades-old original material. DuPont sent additional free sample sheets of that product to help us complete all of the repairs.

Using Kapton to Repair the Apollo Telescope Mount

Custom Kapton® patches were created for the Apollo Telescope Mount restoration project. Here double-sided tape is applied to black Kapton to create custom patches. 

Restored Apollo Telescope Mount

After a year-long project to restore the Apollo Telescope Mount, the artifact was put back on display in late 2015. 

After applying nearly 30.5 meters (100 feet) of the hand-made tapes, the ATM spar assembly appears much as it did in the early 1970s. Modern museum restoration philosophy dictates that up close you should be able to see all of the repairs I made, but from a very short distance the artifact appears nicely intact with Kapton® covers. Thanks to the advice and free material provided by an industrial firm that contributed to the original project, Museum visitors are now able to see one of the great scientific achievements of the early U.S. space program at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.