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The A7L space suit: The most famous space suit of all time

It was the space suit used to take Man’s first steps on the moon, without which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would never have appeared in our history books. Although it is beginning to suffer the ravages of time over 50 years after it was used, the A7L space suit remains the most famous space suit of all time, becoming a world-famous icon in the night of 20 to 21 July 1969.
The A7L space suit: The most famous space suit of all time
Apollo 11 A7L space suit - Nasa
The A7L space suit: The most famous space suit of all time

The first steps on the moon

The Apollo 11 mission, named after Apollo, the Greek god of arts, song, music, male beauty and poetry, was the first space mission to take a man to the moon. It was the third manned mission to have approached the moon, after Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, and the fifth manned mission of the American Apollo space programme. The mission saw the launch on 16 July 1969 of a ship carrying a crew comprising Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. On 20 July 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.

One small step for Man… One giant leap for Mankind

With this triumph, the American NASA space agency fulfilled the objective set by President John F. Kennedy in his speech of 25 May 1961, which was to land on the moon before the end of the 1960s (and to regain America’s prestige which had been undermined by the various successes of the Russian space programme during the cold war period). Apollo 11’s crew, after spending 21 hours and 30 minutes on the moon and making a single two-and-a-half hour spacewalk during which 21.7 kg of moon rock was collected and scientific instruments were set up, finally landed without incident in the Pacific Ocean after a flight that lasted 195 hours in total.

A women’s lingerie manufacturer created the “21-layer A7L” space suit

One of the greatest challenges to be met in order to achieve this feat involved manufacturing a space suit or full-pressure suit that would protect the astronauts in space: the equipment would need to provide the astronaut with a pressurised environment and be able to withstand extreme temperatures (which can reach a maximum of 150°C in direct sunlight and a minimum of -233°C) for 7 consecutive hours or a total of 160 hours. Contrary to popular belief, an astronaut without a pressurised space suit would not die frozen, but would inflate to twice their volume. They would die of hypoxia. However, achieving such a technical feat required know-how that did not exist in 1969.

Eight companies presented their solutions to NASA; only one of them was unknown, albeit only in the field of astronautics. Its area of expertise was hard rubber, and its name was International Latex Corporation (now ILC Dover Inc.), a company that owed its reputation to its line of female lingerie sold under the Playtex brand. And it was that company that ultimately won out!

And why not? The average bra can contain up to 30 different parts and up to 20 different materials. The basic model passes through 32 manufacturing stages, and a seamstress would use between 5 and 8 machines to make just one unit. True expertise.

The challenge facing the Latex Corporation was a significant one since the aim was to manufacture a space suit that would exceed all standards, in particular those that did not yet even exist.

A space suit’s main functions

The lunar suit is designed to protect astronauts from extreme temperatures, the vacuum of space, and meteoroids. It was worn by the astronauts during space walks and on the surface of the moon, as well as inside space vehicles in order to cope with any accidental depressurisation. To keep its occupant alive, it must provide oxygen, evacuate exhaled carbon dioxide and water vapour, and provide thermal protection while ensuring maximum mobility: a complex set of specifications given that a pressurised space suit worn in the vacuum of space becomes rigid due to the absence of external pressure. These functions are generally supplemented with a communications system, at least partial protection against cosmic rays and micrometeoroids, and a system enabling the space suit’s occupant to absorb liquids.

“21-layer A7L”: 21 layers of highly technical materials to provide protection against a hostile environment

The A7L space suit is made up of several layers. The outer cover layer conceals three superimposed inner space suits. Comfort for the astronaut was ensured first by a nylon undergarment worn directly against the skin which includes the telecommunications hood, an electrical connection and a biological monitoring communications relay, as well as briefs containing a urine collector and a faecal matter retaining layer. This outfit is wrapped in an inflatable suit that maintains uniform pressure around the entire body. A third, nylon layer prevents unwanted inflation through a set of pressurised boots and gloves and helmet. In total, it is made up of 14 superimposed layers: inside is a rubberised nylon lining, five layer of Mylar that reflect heat alternating with four layers of Dacron, then two layers of Super Katpon fireproof plastic, a membrane of Beta cloth coated with fireproof and anti-abrasion Teflon, and finally a layer of fire and friction resistant Teflon fabric.

The shoes were manufactured in the same way, with a fabric buckle and cord system to fasten them. A zipper at the top of each boot enables them to be attached to the leg of the suit. A Teflon reinforcement surrounding the ankle was added to prevent premature wear and tear to the area as a result of friction. The entire boot is attached using lacing cords, Velcro straps and snap fasteners. The boots comprise 25 layers of ultra-light insulation.

The gloves were very difficult to make, as they had to be “able to pick up a diamond and be as strong as a bullet-proof vest”. The pressurised extra-vehicular gloves are reinforced with a metal fabric and contain an inner lining of rubber and silicone. Their outer surface is slightly adhesive in order to provide better grip.

The detachable helmet is made from Lexan, a polycarbonate with excellent mechanical properties and thermal resistance for use in temperatures up to 120°C. It is fitted with a valve on the left-hand side through which the power adapter can be inserted. A duct made up of a synthetic elastomer foam is glued to the back of the helmet’s shell to provide the astronaut with a headrest and to serve as a ventilation outlet duct which directs the gas (O2) to the mouth and nose area.

All in all, each space suit is made up of 21 layers of high-tech plastics and materials largely developed by DuPont, weighing in at 72 kgs and costing $ 100,000 per suit at the time.

The A7L space suit remains the most complex space suit to have been used to date, and it was not the fruit of NASA’s military-industrial expertise, but rather of the craftsmanship of a lingerie manufacturer and its seamstresses!  

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