One Small Step:

Challenges to Conserving and Displaying Spacesuits at the National Air and Space Museum

Invited Speaker

Lisa Young,
National Air and Space Museum
Washington DC, USA  

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has the world’s largest collection of spacesuits and related components from the United States space program.  In addition to the more well-known suits worn on historical missions, the Museum houses a large number of non-flight, experimental and developmental suits.  Approximately two-thirds of the collection is currently in storage, and the remaining suits are either on display at NASM, or on loan to other museums in the United States and abroad. 

While many of the suits are similar in construction and materials, the suits were custom-made for each individual astronaut or a particular design and test, making every suit unique in its own way.  As very little supporting documentation remains regarding the developmental history of these suits, much of the information on their materials and construction, as well as their history from use, can only be found by studying each suit. 

Over the past two decades, the NASM conservation team has collaborated with curators, scientists and industry experts to undertake research to gain a better understanding of the decay mechanisms showing advanced corrosion and decay with the materials used to construct the suits. Many of the early fabrics used in production of the spacesuits were –“off the shelf” materials available in the 1950s and 1960s, and were taken from industry use at that time. These materials were then altered and changed throughout the space program to solve issues while manufacturing the suits and evolved as a result of mission critical tasks performed by the astronauts in space.

Most of the materials remain relatively stable, however the  metal alloys are impacted by their proximity to unstable materials such as rubbers, adhesives and other polymers that continue to off-gas acidic plasticizers, causing advanced forms of corrosion. This paper will highlight the challenges in keeping suits on display, while balancing the need to stabilize and slow-down deterioration of these materials for long-term preservation.

Spacesuit display considerations will be discussed as NASM is currently under-going renovation of the Washington DC museum including the re-design of 23 galleries which will eventually showcase 15 suits. The first of these galleries scheduled to open to the public in 2022, “Destination Moon”, will tell the story of lunar exploration using artifacts from the NASM collection including spacesuits from the Mercury and Apollo missions.