Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

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Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a stunning history of the development of NASA’s A7L EVA Space Suit. Used on the Apollo and Skylab missions during the heights of the Space Race, the space suit is quite possibly one of the more recognizable images of mankind’s existence in space. In this extraordinary book, he outlines what we know in abstract form: that the lunar landings were an event that was the cumulative efforts of thousands, if not millions of people across a huge number of industries. The real triumph of Apollo isn’t the steps that made history on the moon: it’s all of the steps in the decades before that got them there. Laid out in 21 chapters (the same number of layers that went into a space suit), and covered in a latex dust jacket, de Monchaux methodically drills into the development of a garment that would protect an astronaut in the extreme, inhospitable environment of space. In doing so, he covers far more than just the evolution of the spacesuit: he provides an in depth history of how we went to space and the impact that it had, touching on social, military and political influences.

It’s impossible to oversell the book: what de Monchaux has put together an exceptional piece of history, one that’s eminently readable and beautiful to behold. Laid out with numerous sources with every chapter, photographs and diagrams throughout, it’s a strikingly engaging read. Potentially dense from the outside description, we’re treated to a wide-ranging examination of the background, development and execution of the iconic, all while the book covers everything from the bra industry to the New Look fashion collection by Dior to the military industrial complex and the Cold War.

While these connections seem completely unrelated and separate from Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, we come to find that they are incredibly and intricately intertwined. Spacesuit begins far before NASA and Apollo were conceived of in the 1760s, when mankind was first searching for ways to come up off the ground, first in balloons. What follows is a story that follows mankind’s experiences in the extremes, and we find out not only why such protection is needed, but how we figured out that we needed it in the first place.

In a large way, Spacesuit is the story of technical evolution in the much larger context of humanity’s greatest technological achievement. NASA was a complicated organization that has its roots in a number of diverse fields. Custom fitted for the Apollo and Skylab astronauts, the research, development and production of each space suit was the product of an incredible organizational structure that NASA oversaw from beginning to end, working closely with partner organizations, such as the International Latex Corporation, among many others. The space suits were constructed to exceedingly minute tolerances, and accompanied by reams of paperwork certifying every single component and step along the way.

Alongside the evolution of technology, Spacesuit contains a parallel narrative of the rise of NASA’s organizational structure, in how planners oversaw the development of the world’s most complicated machines and processes. The story of Apollo’s spacesuits is a microcosm for NASA as a whole: innovative, but bureaucratic, it shows the enormity of the challenge laid down by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962. Accomplished in hindsight, this history demonstrates just how utterly impossible the task would have likely been had it not been for the expertise in both public and private organizations. In addition to the technical and historical content, de Monchaux looks back philosophically at the end, examining the very nature of systems in nature, and how utterly deceptively complex a project such as Apollo really is.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is the rare extraordinary book that provides such a wide-reaching view of the workings of the space industry that brought us to the Moon and back. Frequently, I found myself almost faced with numerous facts across all number of fields, from fashion and society to computing to military history and the Cold War. de Monchaux’s words are deceptively easy to read, dense with information, yet shedding the dry, pedantic nature of an academic text. In telling the story of the space suit, we’re treated to something much greater: a story of recognizing and realizing impossibility, and then overcoming it with a clear vision of what to accomplish. This book is a must-read for a wide range of people: those interested in the history of the Space Race, certainly, but also those with an eye towards project management and leadership. This book outlines the complicated nature of NASA and its task, and shows that it wasn’t just a handful of astronauts who deserve all of the credit for stepping on the moon.

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