It’s difficult to think of a garment that carries more historical significance than Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit, still dusted with grains from the lunar surface. Perhaps King Henry VIII’s suit of armor, one of Napoleon’s uniforms, or Queen Victoria’s mourning dress could compare in terms of priceless clothing, but Armstrong’s spacesuit carries a special singularity that no other suit could claim: the first boots to step on the moon, and the gear that kept Armstrong alive in the inhospitable lunar environment.
Armstrong’s suit was displayed for about 30 years at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum before it was taken down in 2006 because curators were concerned about deterioration. After 13 years of restoration work, the spacesuit is back on display at the museum, unveiled today at an event on the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11.
“The complexity of the suit ensured it could support human life in the harshest of environments: extreme heat and cold, radiation, micrometeorites and the threat of cuts from sharp rocks all had to be taken into consideration,” said Ellen Stofan, the museum's director, at the event. “As our curators note, these spacesuits were actually single-person spacecraft, but while they were designed to endure the punishment of a lunar walk, they weren’t designed to last half a century on display.”
The conservation of the spacesuit, which Armstrong wore when he walked on the moon for the first time on July 20, 1969, was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $500,000 from 9,000 people. To share the suit with the public, it will be on display near the 1903 Wright Flyer in the Air and Space Museum before moving to its permanent home in a new “Destination Moon” exhibition to open in the next few years. The suit has also been digitized, and a 3-D model is available to the public online. The Smithsonian will also send 15 life-size statues of the Armstrong spacesuit to baseball parks around the country as part of the Apollo at the Park project.
“Commander Neil Armstrong’s name is synonymous with undaunted courage, the American spirit of exploration, and the evidence that humanity’s potential is limitless,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine at the event.
Conserving the first suit to be worn on the moon involved creating a detailed map with X-rays, CT scanning and UV photography, as well as extensive research into the suit’s manufacture and various functions. Museum conservators worked to preserve the suit while preventing further degradation, keeping features of historical significance such as the lunar dust and handmade repairs made before flight. The suit will be displayed in a climate-controlled case that monitors temperature, lighting, humidity and ventilation, and an advanced circulation system will filter out unwanted vapors that are produced as a result of the breakdown of rubber in the suit.
“Apollo 11 is the only event of the 20th century that stands a chance of being widely remembered in the 30th century,” said vice president Mike Pence at the event. “A thousand years from now, July 20, 1969 will likely be a date that will live on in the minds and imaginations of men and women, here on Earth, across our solar system, and beyond.”
In 2019, 50 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit stands as one of the most significant artifacts in the world. In hundreds or even thousands of years, the suit’s relevance to the world will only increase. Conservators and historians at the Smithsonian are working to make sure the priceless garment will still be around as the centuries go by and the moon landing’s legacy is cemented in history.