Air and Space Museum: The Spacesuit Morgue

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Yesterday, I had one of those days when I’m reminded how lucky I am to be working here at Smithsonian. So what did it for me? I saw Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit that he wore to the moon. I saw the gray lunar dust caked to it. And I have to admit, an intense patriotism welled up in me.

My guess is that most people haven’t thought twice about where most of NASA’s spacesuits—worn and unworn (some were just developmental, meaning that they were a stepping stone to a more perfected suit)—are kept, and even if they have, the thought of a spacesuit morgue probably didn’t cross their mind. But that’s literally what the walk-in fridge-like storage space out at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, feels like. In it, some 150 spacesuits—some white, some hunter green with black accordion-like sleeves, some a bright royal blue with ruched pant legs—all stuffed with soft mannequins lie on their backs, layered five to a cart, and draped in muslin. There’s a cart full of gloves, one pair with sharkskin pads on their fingertips and palms; another of boots and one of bulbous helmets.

As if seeing the collection wasn’t enough, my guide was Amanda Young, the foremost expert on spacesuit conservation. (Another perk to the job: rubbing shoulders with the foremost experts in "X.") With her charming British accent, Young, who plays "mummy" to the suits by caring for them, introduced me to her babies. "Here’ Jack," she said as she pulled some muslin back to reveal the spacesuit worn by Jack Schmitt of Apollo 17, the next to last man on the moon. "And here’s Alan." Shepard, that is.

Young’s new book Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum comes out June 1, in time for the 40th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. Also, stay posted for a profile of her in the Around the Mall section of Smithsonian’s May issue.

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