I once had a teacher who delighted in pointing out the human touches in manufactured products. “Hopelessly handmade,” he’d exclaim, his arms wildly gesticulating in front of a projection of an Eames-era, bent-chrome chair. Beyond the perfect right angles and impeccable seams, there was always just enough imperfection to prove his point: behind every good object is an even better person.
Yet when it comes to the exact science and mathematics of aeronautics, “handmade” is the last word to enter my mind. In a new book about the design process of the space suit, architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux explains how the NASA space suit was assembled by seamstresses who worked for the International Latex Corporation, more commonly known for making Playtex bras. As a symbol of man’s ability to launch himself to mythic proportions, the astronaut was made possible by a talented group of ladies. “They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins,” explained Monchaux in a recent interview. “So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.”
So often when histories are written, many people and their stories are overlooked in favor of big-name heros. In a subject that tends to highlight names like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, it’s refreshing to see the story retold from another angle that includes someone like Hazel Fellows, one of the women who helped assemble the first American space suit. “Like few others in the whole process, [these seamstresses] really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands,” Monchaux reflects. “They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled.”