Effort on to preserve Armstrong’s ILC spacesuit

A top-down image of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, minus the helmet. (Submitted photo/Bill Ayrey)

A top-down image of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, minus the helmet. (Submitted photo/Bill Ayrey)

DOVER — Forty-six years ago, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, he had a little piece of Delaware with him.

Mr. Armstrong’s spacesuit was made by ILC Dover, which has been crafting suits for NASA since 1962.

Now, officials at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum are working to preserve the suit and make it more accessible to the public.

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo Command Module capsule was launched by the Saturn Rocket. On board were three astronauts, each wearing a suit that was made by ILC Dover.

Mr. Armstrong’s historic moonwalk took place on July 21, 1969.

The helmet worn by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The helmet worn by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In 1972, Mr. Armstrong’s historic suit was given to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where it was on display until 2006.

Museum officials, seeking to raise $500,000 for the preservation, launched a Kickstarter which allows visitors to donate funds toward a goal on Monday morning. By 3 p.m. Tuesday — only 36 hours into the fundraising — $242,000 had been collected.

(UPDATE: As of 3 p.m. Thursday, July 23, $424,000 had been pledged.)

Bill Ayrey, ILC Dover’s quality laboratory manager and company historian who played a role in organizing the fundraising efforts, was pleasantly surprised Tuesday afternoon when informed how much money had been raised.

“To have it halfway through this soon really shows people are interested,” said Mr. Ayrey, who has an in-depth knowledge of and intense interest in the Armstrong suit.

The Air and Space Museum’s curator for spacesuits, Cathleen Lewis, had similar feelings, expressing pride in how much already had been donated.

With the additional funds, the museum can hire specialists to examine the suit in great detail, look over existing documentation and examine the suit’s path from completion in a Kent County lab on Jan. 19, 1969, to today.

Some people will digitize the famous suit, allowing space fans (and there are many) to view a 3-D model of it on the museum’s website. Repairs will be also be made as needed, to ensure this piece of history lasts for another 46 years — and hopefully longer.

The goal, Ms. Lewis said, is to display it as part of a planned gallery called “Destination Moon,” which will track

The spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong for the moon landing was made by ILC Dover.

The spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong for the moon landing was made by ILC Dover.

“humankind’s fascination with the moon from ancient times to very current events.”

As the museum’s “crown jewel,” the suit will be set up in a climate-controlled exhibit in July 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. (Mr. Armstrong died in 2012 at the age of 82.)

Touch-down was a “seminal moment,” Ms. Lewis said, the result of years of hard work and millennia of questions.

People today continue to be enthralled by the moon landing, as evidenced by the Kickstarter’s success, she said.

Mr. Ayrey knows what it’s like to be drawn to the famous landing.

“I was one of the generation that grew up watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and I just thought it was fascinating,” he said.

He has been working with the museum since the late 1990s, when officials were struggling to keep the suit in good condition.

The suit, which is an A7L model (the A7 indicates it was the seventh Apollo spacesuit, while the L shows it was made by ILC Dover) was, like all astronaut suits, custom-made for each user.

ILC Dover built 18 suits for every launch: flight, training and backup suits for all three crew members, as well as the three replacement astronauts left on Earth.

The outer layer was built in the company’s Frederica building, while the main suit was crafted in the Dover plant.

Overall, each suit took about four months to make, he said.

However, a suit, which Mr. Ayrey described as both simple and complicated, only lasted six months.

The rubber inside quickly rotted, meaning that after a flight, suits would be hung up, donated to the Smithsonian or used for training, according to Mr. Ayrey.

Mr. Armstrong’s suit, unlike nearly all others, still has the mission patches, which are normally removed by astronauts once the suit’s lifespan is up.

Some level of uncertainty surrounded the Apollo 11 suits, Ms. Lewis said, as despite extensive testing, no spacesuit had actually been used on the moon before.

The A7L models passed with flying colors.

The company actually began designing similar wear around 1955, when it developed high-altitude suits for the U.S. Air Force.

Mr. Armstrong’s suit remains a reminder of one of the greatest scientific and technological advances in human history, a moment that captured the eyes and hearts of millions — and Delaware played a pivotal role, even if few people are aware.

“For little Delaware, especially little old Federica, Delaware, that’s pretty good,” Mr. Ayrey said.

Neil Armstrong’s left glove.

Neil Armstrong’s left glove.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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