Spacesuit in need of repair

Posted on Mon, April 5, 2010
  • by: Beth Wilson

I have a really cool job.  When I’m out and someone asks: "What do you do?” I reply: “I work at the National Air and Space Museum.”  The response is usually: “Wow, that’s cool” and then I say: “Yes it is very cool.”  One of the things that makes being an educator here great is our teaching collection. I’m lucky, I work with a curatorial and collections staff that considers our needs as educators and provides the public with deaccessioned items they can touch and examine up close.   Our teaching collection currently contains real space food, shuttle tiles, bits of airplanes, meteorites, uniforms and other assorted items.  However, not all the items are real; our most popular replica is the shuttle era space suit.  The suit has been part of the Discovery Station Program for over ten years.  It was purchased with a grant from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee and is part of the Living and Working in Space Discovery Station, our most popular station, largely because of the suit.  The station gets an average of 40,000 visitors yearly, but that’s only a portion of the crowds the suit sees.  It has also become a key object used for family days, story times and school tours.

Mock Space Shuttle Suit

Mock Space Shuttle Suit from the Space Discovery Station.

Beth Wilson and Spacesuit

Beth Wilson demostrates dressing for space.

During the summer of 2006, I was rolling the suit back into its case and the glove fell off.  I took a good look at the suit and was distressed to see how it was aging.  Hundreds of thousands of hands touching it over the years had taken their toll. But I allowed it to be used with the public while I pondered where I could find $45,000 to replace it.  With no funding forthcoming, the suit just wouldn’t survive another busy season. I decided that it should remain on view in its case and brought out only for special programs. As the Museum’s Development office looked for funding sources, someone mentioned our aging suit to ILC Dover’s Bill Ayrey.  ILC Dover is the company that designs and manufactures NASA’s space suits, beginning with the Apollo Missions.  Bill generously offered to repair the suit.   So, last fall Bill drove down, picked up our suit and took it to ILC Dover.  The very talented seamstresses sewed on new arms, Bill cleaned the pants, re-stuffed the suit, acquired recent mission patches and updated the gloves.  The crew at ILC Dover could not have been more helpful or generous with their time and talent. I am grateful for all the effort that went into the refurbishment.  I can honestly say it looks brand new.  In fact, Bill and his crew did such a good job that an ILC employee mistook it for a real shuttle suit!

Spacesuit and ILC Seamstresses

ILC Seamstresses with the shuttle era spacesuit they repaired for the National Air and Space Museum.

The suit made it back to the museum last month. I was on the phone with a colleague at another museum when the call came in that Bill had arrived.  I told her: “I’m sorry.  I’ll have to call you later, my space suit is back from ILC!”  To which she replied: “You have the coolest job ever.”   “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”