Short of entombing it in a giant resin block like a prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber, the Smithsonian’s conservators can’t stop Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from slowly breaking down over time. But, as Adam Savage discovered, they have come up with a clever way to slow down the degradation. It’s not obvious to museum visitors, but Armstrong’s spacesuit now actually breathes to help dispel gases that contribute to its slow decay.
First put on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, back in 1976, Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit wowed space enthusiasts for 30 years before curators made the decision to take it down in 2006 over concerns about the suit’s condition and its deterioration. Manufactured in the ‘60s for Nasa’s Apollo program, the suit was really only designed to survive for about six months (which included a trip to the moon and back) so in order to survive another 30 years on display, and hopefully longer, some important steps had to be taken.
What followed was 13 years of painstaking restoration and conservation work, partially funded by over $700,000 (£576,000) raised in a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign. On 16 July 2019, it went back on display at the Air and Space Museum, and one of its first visitors was Adam Savage who’s spent years working on and perfecting an exact replica of Neil Armstrong’s A7-L pressure suit, which he wore for the occasion. Savage also got to chat with the museum’s Objects Conservator, Lisa Young, about the conservation process and she revealed some interesting secrets about the efforts to extend the suit’s lifespan.
There are quite a few things working against the conservation efforts, including moon dust still embedded in the spacesuit’s fibres which are microscopic, but still incredibly sharp and capable of tearing the suit as it’s simply being moved around. Even the fact that the suit is degrading serves to accelerate the degradation process. Its inner pressure bladder is made from a mix of natural and synthetic rubbers which, over the past 50 years, have become stiff in some areas, and decomposed in others. As the rubber breaks down, it releases harmful gases that easily find their way into other parts of the suit, causing further damage.
There’s nothing the museum’s conservators can do to stop the pressure bladder from releasing those gases but built right into the spacesuit’s exhibit are some clever ways to dispel them. To hold the suit in a realistic pose so that it appears as if an astronaut is still inside, a custom mannequin was designed and built using various materials, including 3D-printed parts, and an integrated ventilation system. Between the suit’s legs, visitors will notice a pair of tubes used to pump clean air into the mannequin. That air mixes with the unwanted gases and is slowly evacuated from the exhibit by pumps that send it through an adjoining scrubber to filter out the unwanted particles. It takes about three days for all the air in the exhibit to be completely exchanged, but it’s a process that’s constantly running.
Given the recent 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, you can expect some long queues at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum as visitors will undoubtedly be vying for a peek at Armstrong’s suit. But hopefully, these new conservation efforts mean you’ve got several decades if you want to wait for the crowds to thin before your next visit.