We’ve all come to love and cherish the visionary images of astronauts out in space in their spacesuits. There’s something truly incredible about getting to see a humanoid form right in space, overlooking our beautiful blue marble, wrapped inside a protective suit that shelters the new millennium explorer from the cold, deadly grips of vacuum. As familiar as these space life-support systems have become in popular media, a lot of people don’t know just how complex and intricate these designs are underneath.
This Friday a new exhibit will open at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum highlighting the science and ingenuity that went into creating these wonderful space suits. At the exhibit, you’ll be able to explore the intricate mechanics through the X-ray stills on display that show parts of various spacesuits developed overtime.
The museum’s X-rays are the first such images ever created to study, conserve and research the nation’s spacesuits, according to space history curator Cathleen Lewis.
“You don’t realize what a complex machine these are,” Lewis said. But the X-rays of Alan Shepard’s Apollo spacesuit and a 1960s prototype “allow visitors to see beyond what is visible to the naked eye, through the protective layers of the suit to see the substructures that are embedded inside.”
Inside the spacesuit
Besides the chance of seeing in minute detail what makes a space suit ‘tick’, you’ll also be treated to a fantastic trip down space exploration memory lane, as the exhibit showcases X-rays from high-altitude test flight suits of the 1930s to the dawn of the space age with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle missions. With this broadened perspective you’ll undoubtedly notice that as technology evolved, so did fashion!
“NASA had a demand to create the astronauts into a whole new corps, a non-military corps. So here was an opportunity to dress them in a new uniform … that evokes sensibilities of that Buck Rogers imagination,” she said. “All of these guys, the engineers, they grew up on science fiction. They fed it with their ideas, and they were consumers of it at the same time.”
The exhibit will also feature two Apollo era prints donated by renowned fashion and celebrity photographer Albert Watson, who in 1990 made a photo gallery of spacesuits and other NASA artifacts.
“When you deal with celebrities every day or super models every day and fashion people every day, there is always a nice escape to go into still life,” he said. “As a child, I loved science fiction. I always remember arguing with my father about rocket ships. He said man will never go into space, he said, because what goes up must come down.”
Besides the exhibit, called “Suited for Space“, at the National Air and Space Museum you’ll also be able to catch two other companion exhibits that highlight 50 artworks of about 550 new items added to the Smithsonian’s growing space art collection over the past decade. hey include portraits of astronomer Carl Sagan and astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson, and a photograph of first female shuttle commander Eileen Collins by photographer Annie Leibovitz.
Curators here have their work cut-out for them, though. Many of these artifacts are well past their life cycle, showing signs that the materials are decomposing, discoloring or becoming rigid. We have good faith in the curators’ preservation efforts, still ZME Science recommends you visit these sooner than later.