On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step off Apollo 11’s lunar module and onto the surface of the moon. Along with his Apollo 11’s other crew members Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Armstrong made history and inspired generations round the world. The mission for the first lunar landing consisted of a lot of planning and development. There were companies contracted to complete several projects for the Apollo mission, and among these companies was one you probably wouldn’t expect – Playtex. That’s correct, the company known for manufacturing bras became a major player in getting people on the moon.
It’s All in The Details
Internation Latex Company (ILC) was the parent company of Playtex that took on the official contract. Playtex was the division of ILC that specialized in creating women’s garments, so they knew a lot about rubber garments. This was key knowledge to have in the process of creating suits that met NASA’s standards and offered exceptional range of motion as well. ILC brought Playtex in as an unconventional player, and it paid off in the end. The company also helped make a team of women a part of history at a time when no one expected it. “I had something to do that was great. I did something great in my lifetime. I built the suit that went to the moon,” 75-year-old Bert Pilkenton told CNN in an interview.
ILC beat out groups of scientists and aerospace engineers for the contract to build the first spacesuit due to focusing on protection as well as comfort. After winning the contract, the company recruited a team of seamstresses, along with their supervisors, who were knowledgeable and experienced in using unconventional materials and precise detail to create the suits worn by the astronauts. “Lower arm, upper arm, torso, setting zippers, the convolutes. I had a part in all of it. Wherever they needed help. We just helped each other,” said Ruth Ratledge who still works at ILC Dover as a seamstress. The jobs were given to these women due to the fact that a stitching error as small as 1/32 inch could mean the difference between a space-worthy suit and a reject. We had spacesuits before the lunar mission program, but due to an Apollo 1 explosion in 1967 that killed three Apollo astronauts, NASA decided they needed more powerful suits that could withstand higher temperatures of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
What Did It Take To Make the First Apollo Space Suit?
After extensive research, beta cloth was the fabric of choice for NASA, but the expertise and precision of these undergarment experts is what allowed the fabric to do its job properly. The cost of an individual suit cost a pretty penny as well – around $100,000, the equivalent of roughly $670,000 today. This amount of money is how much it took from the development stages to the creation of the physical suits for the Apollo 11 astronauts. The team of seamstresses began assembling the suits 9 months prior to flight. This gave the crews time to make the suits (21 layers of material!), test them, and perfect each of them for the members of the mission.
After the Apollo 11 mission’s success, NASA has kept a team of seamstresses, around 80 people, specifically for suit making. A single spacesuit for today’s missions costs around $2 million to be built from scratch, not including the initial design costs. We have made many advances in space since Apollo 11, but without the hard work of the women from Playtex, would we have come this far?