ILC Dover’s retired ‘moon suit’ makers remember Apollo 11

DOVER — It’s well-known local lore that when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon 50 years ago they did so clad in Delaware-made duds.

No easy task, the creation of the space suits required the efforts of a small army of craftsmen and women who were brought together at ILC Dover to ultimately make Mr Armstrong’s “small step for man” possible on July 20, 1969.

On Thursday, ILC Dover hosted a 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing mission at their headquarters in Frederica, drawing dozens of the now-retired staff whose handiwork kept U.S. astronauts dressed for the occasion.

Former ILC Dover president Homer Riehm recalls when the latex firm first decided to pursue the “moon suit business.”
“They’d been working with company money to develop the capability to make a moon suit starting back in 1957 — it had to be different than anything that existed to date,” he said. “There were suits used for emergencies in high-altitude airplanes, but these were going to need to be very different.”

Attempting to secure the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contract, ILC decided to pursue a lightweight, latex-based design. Mr. Riehm noted that the flexible, accordion-like joints in ILC’s design allowed for a greater range of motion, while not compromising on strength.
“We bid on the suit in ‘62 by sending in a video of our prototype suit with the walking and movement capabilities — that ended up securing the contract for us,” he said.

Starting with a small team of 10-15 people, Mr. Riehm, who was the project manager at the time, said it quickly became nessecary to bring in a large team of seamstresses, cementers, pattern makers, cutters and designers.
“It was quite the team effort,” he said.

Delaware-native seamstress Ruth Ratledge was one of the all-women sewing staff the did the delicate work of stitching the suits together. Getting her start in 1966, she said the project was a rewarding challenge that held her and her peers to the highest standards.
“I always enjoyed the work,” she said. “We always sewed as a group and everyone really pulled together.”
Ms. Ratledge recalls distinctly watching Mr. Armstrong exit the lunar lander on TV at a supervisors house.

“I wasn’t nervous, I knew our work was good — everything had been inspected so many times,” she said. “If something wasn’t up to specifications, it got rejected and had to be redone.
“There was nothing left to chance. We thought if it was us going to the moon, we’d want have wanted it to be done right. We’d never take a chance with someone else’s life.”

Mr. Riehm was also quite confident in the product on the momentous day. He’d been one of the two ILC Dover staff-members to watch the lunar landing from “mission control” in Houston, Texas.
“We were asked to come down and back up NASA’s people in the event of any concerns that needed immediate technical guidance,” he said. “We felt very confident because we’d tested the suits to survive 20 simulated lunar missioner, that’s what they were certified for.

“So, we assumed only doing one would go well. I was just hoping that there were no surprises. I have to admit that I was happy when the lunar landing was over though, because for a minute there the whole world was looking at little old ILC.”

According to Mr. Riehm, ILC Dover provided suits for Apollo missions 7 through 17, the Skylab missions and the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project.
“Through all that time, there was never a single mission failure of any of our suits — they all performed flawlessly,” Mr. Riehm said proudly.
Like many of the retirees in attendance on Thursday, Mr. Riehm, who retired in 2001 and Ms. Ratledge, who retired in 2017, were delighted to see old familiar faces and relive the accomplishments they were party to.

Ms. Ratledge, who turned 85 in June, even confessed that she had an itch to sit down at a sewing machine and go to work.
“I’m actually a little bothered I can’t do it anymore — I miss the work,” she laughed. “I’m still able to do some sewing at home though, anytime someone needs something. I like hemming slacks, shirts and things, I’ve just always enjoyed it.”

Coming documentary
Working with local filmmaker TJ Healy, Mr. Riehm and several other ILC Dover veterans are at work preparing a documentary to catalog the experiences of the staff who took part in manufacturing the space suits.

With dozens of interviews already done, Mr. Riehm says he hopes the film will help preserve the memory of his team for posterity.
“Right now, most people in Kent County know ILC Dover made space suits for NASA, but that might be all they know,” he said. “If we don’t record anything, in 10 to 15 more years when the few remaining people who remember are gone, it’ll kind of fade into the past.
“But this would given them a good feeling what it was all about. These suits were a very sophisticated product and they performed a very significant mission and overcame a lot of obstacles. It’s a great story that should be told.”
Already securing some funding for the project, Mr. Healy notes that a short-form trailer will likely be complete in the next few months with the goal of having the feature-length production complete before the end of the year.

Mr. Healy says that the immediate goal is to preserve the stories of employees and innovators that were working on the Apollo projects for the state’s archives, but he also believes the finished product would have marketability with outlets like The Smithsonian or The Discovery Channel.
He said streaming services like Netflix and Hulu may be interested in it upon completion.
Residents interested in pledging funds to the project or have a personal history of their own connected to ILC Dover’s moon suit project, can reach Mr. Healy at healytj@verizon.net.

Continuing a legacy
Although the company has a storied past, their future looks bright too.
ILC Dover got its start as the International Latex Corporation back in 1947. Since then they’ve become one of the most well-known suppliers of engineered products employing high-performance flexible materials.

Most popular for their work on NASA’s space suits, they also produce a wide variety of other products in all sorts of industries.
They manufacture bulk packaging for food and chemicals, processing and containment systems for pharmaceuticals, environmental safety equipment and suits, rapidly deployable flood protection systems like their new “tunnel plug” and “space inflatables” to name a few. It’s not only the manufacture though, ILC engineers, processes and designs the products as well.

Company officials say that since the 1960s it has been involved in “countless space development and production programs.” They’ve supplied all the space suits for NASA since project Apollo and they support the current extravehicular activities of the international space station.

In 2012, TIME magazine named their high-pressure Z1 space suit one of the “best inventions” of the year. One of those suits was used by the StratEx team to complete a record-breaking near-space dive from a high-altitude balloon — completed by G

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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