Biographical / Historical
As part of its holdings documenting the history of aviation and space exploration, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has a collection of over 1,000 space suits, pressure suits, and suit components (gloves, boots, and helmets); this collection includes early developmental suits and suits used during training and testing as well as most of the space suits worn during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Despite the fact the the suits were designed to be robust enough to withstand the dangers of orbital and lunar space operations for the duration of a space flight mission, the suits themselves are extremely fragile. Each suit is constructed of an assortment of natural and man-made materials and metals, and the lifespan of many of the components was not well understood when the suits were first assembled. Most of the space suits from the early United States space programs have deteriorated to the point where they are no longer able to be displayed.
Help arrived in May 1999 when NASM was awarded a Save America's Treasures grant by the White House Millenium Council and the US Department of the Interior's Save America's Treasures Program for a proposal to preserve the "Threatened Artifacts of the Apollo Program." The first part of the grant was for the Apollo space suits (with matching funds provided by Hamilton Sundstrand); the second part was for the preservation of the Saturn V launch vehicle in Houston. In January 2000, the NASM Division of Space History (DSH) began work on an interdisciplinary project to preserve the Apollo era space suits in the NASM collection and to share the results of its research on the deterioration and preservation of space suits with other museums. The project soon grew to encompass all the suits and components then in the museum's collections, and in 2007 and 2008 Amanda Young, the NASM DSH museum specialist then responsible for the collection of space suits and astronaut personal equipment, worked with conservator Roland H. "Ron" Cunningham, of the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and photographer Mark Avino, then Chief of Photographic Services, NASM Office of Communications, to create radiographs (x-ray images) of 17 artifacts in the space suit collection.
Smaller artifacts such as gloves, helmets, and other suit parts were each imaged on a single sheet of film; one larger artifact (the RX-1 Arm) was imaged on three sheets of film overlapped to create a single image. The four space suits (pressure suits) featured in this collection were each imaged by overlapping 15 sheets of x-ray film to form a continuous 3 x 5 sheet grid on a 4 x 8 foot backing board, arranging the suit on top of the film sheets, and positioning the x-ray equipment high enough to allow a single, simultaneous exposure of all 15 sheets. The circular edges of the x-ray exposure can be seen at the top and bottom of some of the full-suit image radiographs, but most of the final composite digital images have been modified by Avino to appear with a continuous background.