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How Playtex Helped Win the Space Race

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NASA

To the uneducated observer, “Big Moe” and “Sweet Sue” looked like horizontal monoliths on the floor of the production plant of the International Latex Corporation (ILC) in Dover, Delaware. The giant sewing machines were the only two that were big enough (after the additions of an elongated arm and a new sewing bed) to accommodate the bulk of a nearly-completed A7L, the company’s answer to NASA’s demand for a spacesuit that could withstand the punishing conditions of lunar exploration.

The “A” was for Apollo, NASA's blanket name for the moon missions; the “7” signified the generation of suit; the “L” was for ILC and latex, some of the most crucial material in the 21 layers being stitched and glued together around the clock.

Using modified versions of the same Singer sewing machines used for girdles, bras, and diaper covers, ILC—better known by their overarching consumer brand label, Playtex—was, after a successful bid on the job, charged to protect astronauts from the jagged rocks, lack of oxygen, and searing heat (and freezing cold) on the moon's surface. The women assembling the suits had been pulled from undergarment assembly lines, sometimes working in excess of 80 hours a week to make sure the suits were ready on time.

A few of the seamstresses would post a picture of the astronaut whose outfit they were tailoring near their stations [PDF]. It was a reminder that the work they were doing was a different kind of support system than they were used to providing. One errant stitch could mean thousands of dollars in wasted expenses. It could also mean someone’s life.

That fear was more present in some space explorers than others. One seamstress kept a note that an astronaut had sent to the factory. “I would hate,” it read, “to have a tear in my pants while on the moon.”

NASA

Of all the military-industrial businesses to try and seduce NASA into being awarded a contract, Playtex was by far the least likely contender. Formed in 1932 by A.N. Spanel, the garment manufacturer had found its niche in rubber and latex-sourced underwear, particularly the form-fitting girdles that had slowly overtaken corsets in the first part of the 20th century.

Although most of their business stemmed from intimate apparel, Playtex maintained a small but busy Industrial Products Division that had secured contracts with the Air Force in the 1950s for pressure helmets [PDF]. They had also come close to winning a bid for high-altitude flight suits with mobile joints, as well as a contract for NASA’s Mercury and Gemini programs.

When NASA began soliciting bids for their spacesuit development in 1961 following President John F. Kennedy’s public declaration of a moon visit, Playtex threw their name into the hat. At a time when the space agency was preoccupied with hard-shelled suits for lunar exploration, Playtex's premise of a “convolute,” or bellow-shaped joint, was intriguing. The flexion of the elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, and shoulders allowed a suit to maintain air pressure (3.75 pounds of oxygen per square inch) while keeping the wearer mobile enough to bend over, pick up objects, and climb ladders.

NASA was impressed, but Playtex's lack of experience with industrial outfitting was worrisome. Instead, they signed with longtime military supplier Hamilton-Standard in 1962 for the suit’s hardware—like the backpack life support system that offered recirculated oxygen—and directed them to subcontract with Playtex for issues relating to fabrics.

MrBikerBoyzz via YouTube

The marriage was awkward from the start. Hamilton-Standard had a regimented approach to design that more closely resembled a blueprint for a machine; Playtex, in contrast, saw the spacesuit as an extension of the human inside of it. Hamilton wanted a second, back-up pressurized bladder installed in case the first one suffered from failure. It was a practical idea, but it also severely hindered movement: In a January 1964 test in simulated lunar gravity, the wearer, lying on his back, couldn’t get up.

Around the same time, Playtex took note of how a front-closing suit’s zipper could become too strained when the astronaut moved forward. When it asked Hamilton-Standard to fund exploration of a rear-entry suit, the company declined.

The two accomplished relatively little between 1962 and 1965. One of the most important features, a protective outer layer that could resist micrometeoroid showers, was developed by NASA internally; Hamilton-Standard pioneered a cooling tube system to regulate body temperature. (The moon could see days as hot as 300 degrees Fahrenheit and nights as cool as -271.) Hamilton-Standard also busied itself with a self-labeled “tiger” suit that they felt addressed Playtex’s shortcomings, a side project that further fractured their working relationship.

In February 1965, Hamilton-Standard made an appeal to NASA: Playtex, they argued, was a consumer brand that couldn’t work within the confines of the complex engineering the suits required. One of the project leaders, George Durney, was a former sewing machine salesman, not a scientist. They didn’t have thousands of sheets of paper documenting every inch of work performed. Bureaucracy wasn’t their strong suit.

NASA agreed. That same month, Hamilton-Standard terminated Playtex. They no longer had a lane in the space race.

NASA

Hamilton-Standard wasn’t faring much better on their own, though. Their suits, ineffectual and stiff, prompted NASA to hit a reset button and cancel their contract as well. In spring 1965, NASA announced that they’d be holding a second round of bids for the Apollo missions. Both Hamilton-Standard and David Clark, another industrial contractor, were invited to submit samples. Playtex was not.

Len Sheperd, who had been with Playtex’s industrial arm since it first began working with NASA, made a last-minute plea to the space agency: Playtex would pay its own expenses if they were allowed to be a dark horse third entrant. NASA agreed, providing the company could deliver a suit in six weeks.

To meet the July 1965 deadline, Playtex had only a skeleton crew of 12 designers and engineers free to work on the project. They worked around the clock, perfecting the bellows to allow for joint movement and incorporating NASA’s thermal cooling and protective outer shell. Some offices that held fabrics or design templates were locked up at night; supervisors picked the locks to get in.

When NASA greeted two of the three bidders in Houston—Playtex wound up being two weeks late—they had devised a series of 22 tests to see how each suit responded to the simulated demands of lunar exploration. David Clark’s suit had a pressurization malfunction: the helmet blew clean off during a simulated engine cover maneuver. Hamilton-Standard, committed to the bulk, was embarrassed to see that, after a simulated walk on the moon, the suit became too wide to fit inside a capsule. Their astronaut would have been stranded in space.

Playtex won the suit stand-off with ease, passing 12 of the 22 tests. NASA declared there wasn’t a second-place finisher. This time, it would be Hamilton-Standard playing a supporting role, supplying their backpacks for Playtex to incorporate.

Work began in both Dover and at a new facility in Frederica, Delaware on the flight suits, which combined Playtex’s focus on flexibility with the specifications for safety provided by NASA. More seamstresses were added to the growing department, adapting their ability to a different atmosphere entirely.

MrBikerBoyzz via YouTube

The suits had to be perfect every time out, despite some workers having to stitch “blind” owing to the multiple layers. The women were dissuaded from using pins—it could puncture the latex bladder—but those that insisted were given color-coded tips so managers could track them. After a rogue pin was discovered in a suit, they were regularly X-rayed to make sure it didn’t happen again. And if the seamstress brought in her own pins, the guilty party had it poked into her rear end by a disgruntled supervisor.

Double-shift workweeks were common. One seamstress, Eleanor Foraker, had two nervous breakdowns. While the suits were tested and re-tested, a missed detail or malfunction would cause death in less than 30 seconds. The gloves needed to be nimble enough to pick up a dime while sturdy enough to maintain pressure. A woven steel fabric was used for gauntlets to secure them to the suits.

Although Playtex had an agreement for the Apollo mission suits locked in place, they decided to secure a future opportunity: a suit that could be used for extended lunar exploration. In 1968, they filmed tests with their A7LB prototype, an air-filled suit that kept its wearer nimble enough to play football in an open field. NASA bought that one, too.

But the design of the suits had a goalpost that kept moving. After Apollo 1 caught fire on a launch pad in January 1967, killing three astronauts, Playtex went in search of a fire-retardant material that could help resist flames long enough for the wearer to make a clean break from a blaze. They found a woven fiberglass material coated with Teflon, resistant to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although Playtex began shipping the A7L suits in 1966, their real test didn’t come until July 1969. That was when the company—along with 528 million television viewers—would see how they stood up to man’s first moonwalk.

Durney, Sheperd, and a Playtex industrial team that had grown into the hundreds watched nervously as Neil Armstrong sunk his boot into the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. They had planned for every possible contingency—Armstrong stepping on a sharp rock, or sinking into the loose ground. One micrometeoroid shower or accident could mean death. When Armstrong appeared to stumble, they gasped.

But he didn’t fall. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent two and a half hours on the moon collecting samples, returning to dock with astronaut Michael Collins on the command module Columbia. The suits painstakingly crafted on standard Singer sewing machines had stood up to the rigors of space travel.

“It was rough, reliable, and almost cuddly,” Armstrong later said of the suit.

Playtex would go on to split into separate entities, one for consumer manufacturing and one for industrial goods, ILC Dover, where they have continued making shuttle suits over the next five decades up to the present day.

After use, all of the suits were immediately shuttled to the Smithsonian’s storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. In the case of the earliest lunar couture, they still have a Playtex seamstress’s final touch: their name written inside of the suit.

Additional Sources: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo; Moon Machines.

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11 Out-of-This-World Facts About Carl Sagan
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Carl Sagan was perhaps America’s most beloved scientific visionary since Albert Einstein. Both a gifted astronomy researcher and an incredible communicator, he brought the wonders of the universe to the masses with his popular TV series Cosmos and books like the Pulitzer Prize–winning Dragons of Eden and Pale Blue Dot. His only novel, Contact, later became a sci-fi movie starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Here are a few things you might not know about the scientist, TV star, and amateur turtleneck model.

1. HARVARD PASSED ON HIRING HIM.

After Sagan served five years at the esteemed university as an assistant professor, Harvard denied him tenure in 1967, in part because one of his mentors at the University of Chicago derided his work as needlessly wordy and useless. He took a job at Cornell instead, where he stayed on as a professor until his death in 1996.

2. HE DICTATED ALL OF HIS WRITING TO AN AUDIO RECORDER.

Carl Sagan standing with a model of the Viking Lander.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sagan was an avid self-editor. A total of 20 drafts of Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot exist today in the Library of Congress, each filled with handwritten edits, annotations, and revisions by the author. However, he drafted all of his writing—even grant proposals—by dictating his ideas onto a cassette. The contents were then transcribed for him and returned for editing.

3. HE CONSIDERED WRITING A CHILDREN’S BOOK CALLED HOW DO BIRDS FLY?

In 1993, Sagan brainstormed a long list of possible children’s books for a series structured around the theme of “why?” Other potential ideas included Why Is It Warm In Summer?, Why Are There Lakes?, and What Is Air?

4. HE DIDN’T LIKE THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM.

Sagan argued against funding NASA’s Space Shuttle program in favor of more robotic exploration of the farther reaches of space. “That’s not space exploration,” he said in an interview about the space shuttle program’s week-long orbits. “Space exploration is going to other worlds.” A space station would only be worth it, he argued, if it was preparing humans for long-term journeys to space, he told Charlie Rose in 1995.

5. HE WAS AN EARLY CRUSADER AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE.

Carl Sagan with the other founders of the Planetary Society in the 1970s.
JPL via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sagan’s 1960 Ph.D. thesis concerned the atmosphere of Venus. His theoretical model showed that the planet’s extremely high surface temperatures were due to the greenhouse effect of an atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide and water vapor. In his book Cosmos, he wrote, “The surface environment of Venus is a warning: something disastrous can happen to a planet rather like our own.”

6. HE HAS AN ARCHIVE IN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ENDOWED BY THE CREATOR OF FAMILY GUY.

Part of the Carl Sagan Papers in the Library of Congress.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane put up an undisclosed sum to help the Library of Congress buy more than a thousand boxes of material kept by the late scientist and his wife and collaborator, Ann Druyan. The papers in The Seth MacFarlane Collection of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive, which opened in 2013, include some of Sagan’s earliest notebooks and report cards.

7. HE BECAME FAMOUS FOR A PHRASE HE NEVER SAID.

After Sagan appeared in several successful spots on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Carson saw fit to send up the scientist’s signature style (turtleneck included) in a parody sketch.

Carson’s exaggerated use of “billions and billions” would later become associated with the astronomer, though he didn’t use it himself. However, Sagan did talk about large numbers quite a lot, as this supercut shows.

8. HE AND ANN DRUYAN DATED FOR ONE PHONE CALL—AND WERE ENGAGED BEFORE HANGING UP.

Sagan and Druyan, who would create the TV show Cosmos together, fell in love while working on the Voyager message. The courtship was exceedingly brief, as NPR's Radiolab describes:

“After searching endlessly for a piece of Chinese music to put on the record, Druyan had finally found a 2500-year-old song called ‘Flowing Stream.’ In her excitement, she called Sagan and left a message at his hotel. At that point, Druyan and Sagan had been professional acquaintances and friends, but nothing more. But an hour later, when Sagan called back, something happened. By the end of that call, Druyan and Sagan were engaged to be married."

9. HE WANTED TO LEGALIZE POT.

Under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” Sagan wrote a 1969 essay for Time magazine about the personal benefits he’d seen from cannabis use. Then in his mid-30s, he admitted to smoking throughout the prior decade. “I find that today a single joint is enough to get me high,” he wrote, going on to observe that marijuana had enhanced his appreciation for art and music. He concluded that “the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”

10. HE THOUGHT STAR TREK WAS TOO WHITE.

“In a global terrestrial society centuries in the future, the ship’s officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American. In fact, only two of 12 or 14 interstellar vessels are given non-English names, Kongo and Potemkin,” he wrote in a piece about the impact of science fiction on his life in The New York Times in 1978.

11. HE WANTED US TO LEAVE MARS ALONE.

Despite his passion for exploring space, Sagan argued for the preservation of Mars even if it meant limiting our exploration of the planet. In Cosmos, Sagan declared:

“If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.”

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Here's How to Watch NASA's Livestream Spacewalk Series
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NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like many Americans, astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei got up and went to work this morning. But instead of an office, their jobs took them on a walk outside the International Space Station. If that sounds more exciting than what you’re doing at the moment, you can watch their progress live on NASA’s website.

The spacewalk, which commenced the morning of October 5 at 8 a.m. EDT and is expected to last over six hours, is the first of three NASA plans to livestream during the month of October. On this mission, Bresnik, Expedition 53's commander, and Vande Hei, a flight engineer, are replacing one of the motorized lathes on the station’s robotic arm. The Latching End Effectors as they’re called are used to grab cargo vehicles and payloads that arrive at the station.

Bresnik has worked aboard the ISS since July and Vande Hei since September. The pair will don their spacesuits again for NASA’s second livestreamed spacewalk of the month on October 10. On October 18, Bresnik will be leading the third spacewalk and he’ll be assisted by flight engineer Joe Acaba. If you missed this event, you can follow NASA Live for more streams of spacewalks, cargo craft launches, and the occasional orbiter disintegrating in Saturn's atmosphere.

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