Monday, April 29, 2013

Bras, Spacesuits, and "Mission Accomplished"

One of these things is not like the other, right?

Not so fast. Ten year's after George W. Bush wore a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, it's a particularly interesting time to read Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux. The form and function of the spacesuits American astronauts wore on the moon have more to do with politics, women, and fashion than you might think.

Unpacking the space suit. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

In what was probably the most significant intersection of the fashion industry and the military-industrial complex ever, the contract to build the spacesuits for NASA's Apollo missions that ultimately put a man on the moon went to the International Latex Corporation (ILC), the parent of Playtex. Although the ILC division making the spacesuits and the bra company Playtex ultimately split into separate businesses, de Monchaux explains that "until 1966, pipes of liquid latex ran to the dipping room [for spacesuit production] from the same tanks supplying girdle and bra assembly lines." This wasn't a coincidence, and it isn't an instance of space technology trickling down to the general public. In fact, it's the reverse. The first pressurized flight suits had their origins with companies that started out taking advantage of the advent of circular knitting machines in the 1930s to produce girdles and men's compression garments. (We may write about "men's shapewear" like it's a new phenomenon, but it's not.) The entry of the United States into World War II shifted production to high altitude flight suits for military pilots instead. At the same time, early latex technology at Playtex shifted from children's underwear and sheets to inflatable rafts for the military, and the firm's founder shifted his advertising budget to paid newspaper editorials in support of the Roosevelt Administration. But it was John F. Kennedy's vision that would take this fashion-military connection to a whole new level.

Gemini VIII astronauts. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

Kennedy's public commitment to putting a man on the moon was as much about image as it was about technological achievement. The race was on, literally, to accomplish every facet of that mission, including competition among multiple firms for the privilege of suiting up the men in space. And they were all men, with military backgrounds. While the decision to limit the astronaut corps to military pilots was initially made in an effort to protect classified military technology, it was conveyed to the public as being motivated by the superior physiological capacity of elite military pilots. In fact, the entire purpose of a spacesuit is to meet the finite human ability to withstand altitude and extend it, not to require some superior category of person. It was almost different: a NASA subcontractor, Dr. Richard Lovelace, performed a series of performance tests on women for readiness in space, finding equal ability and stamina to withstand altitude. He passed 13 women by 1961, but Vice President Johnson nixed the idea. Regardless of actual ability, women didn't fit the Cold War image of strength that the entire NASA acceleration was intended to convey.

So how did a company that started life making garments primarily for women and children end up making highly technical spacesuits for men? Superior performance, but it was hard won. The image of a "space man" had begun forming decades before, and its futuristic elements were well known - a space suit was smooth, modular, and shiny. There were some technical advantages to these features with respect to pressurization, and many of the prototype suits produced by ILC's competitors had a smooth, sturdy, impenetrable look. The problem, ironically, was space. Space capsules and lunar modules left the astronauts very little room to maneuver, yet they had to be able to perform complex tasks related to flight, and ultimately extricate themselves from the spacecraft out into space and on to the moon. Have you ever worn a Halloween costume that started out as a cardboard box? And then tried to get in and out of a small car while wearing it? Not easy. Now imagine trying that in space.

Apollo 9 astronauts. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

The ILC suit, by contrast, was made of 21 soft textile layers, handcrafted on specially modified sewing machines by master seamstresses originally trained in the high-precision sewing of bras and other garments. Not only were these suits far more easily maneuvered, they were more comfortable, incorporating a layer of girdle lining fabric between the astronaut's skin and the rubberized layers above it. But superior functionality was not entirely enough to win the contract - image was important too. At one point, ILC submitted to NASA along with its prototype suits a short film of two of their engineers playing football, with one of them wearing the spacesuit. This iconic image of American masculinity said more than any technical specifications on durability, comfort, and mobility could convey. ILC won the contract, and they still make space suits today.

So what does this have to do with politics? John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, served 24 years in the United State Senate.

John Glenn entering Friendship 7 in a test facility. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

The image of flight suits and space suits are associated with superior physical and technical ability expressly by design. The American public was told over and over for a decade that these military men wearing strange, rarefied garments were the best of the best, as close to elite beings as we could find to send into space. The suit became a powerful visual shorthand for excellence. It would be 20 years before a woman publicly joined that club.
First class of female astronauts, 1979. Courtesy NASA The Commons on Flickr.

When President George W. Bush appeared before a national audience wearing a flight suit to declare "Mission Accomplished," what did it mean? I expect we'll see a lot of interesting analysis this week in hindsight, but at the time the visual message was quite clearly expressed in the media: strength, vigor, leadership, and sex appeal. He had the equipment to fly as high as man can go.

For women, the potential of these images is just beginning. This term we saw two female veterans elected to Congress: Tammy Duckworth and Tulsi Gabbard. As a double-amputee and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, we've already become accustomed to associating Duckworth's image with military service. But it remains to be seen whether in this era of roadside bombs and women in combat whether it's our perception of women or of military service that will change. Commercial spaceflight could make the spacesuit part of anyone's wardrobe for the right price, which might say "luxury" but it doesn't say "elite." The days of the high flying leader might be over, and that might be ok.

This post is the first in a new series examining historical, sociological, psychological and artistic influences on the effects of image in politics, in preparation for my first book.

1 comment:

  1. I love this article. Fascinating history and reasoning as to why there were no women astronauts for so long!