Lewes man chronicles history of ILC Dover in new book

Dover native Bill Ayrey, now living in Lewes, retired from ILC Dover in 2019 after 41 years of service. Along with managing the facilities that still test the spacesuits worn by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, he represented ILC as its historian. His long tenure at ILC Dover inspired him to write a book, “Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit,” which tells the story of ILC Dover and the period during the 1960s and early ’70s when they were the prime contractor chosen by NASA to design and fabricate the Apollo spacesuit. (Submitted photo)

LEWES — Bill Ayrey has been fascinated with space ever since Neil Armstrong took that “one small step” on the moon in 1969.

“I was 15 when that happened,” the Lewes resident said.

But what thrilled him even more was knowing that the spacesuit worn by that blurry figure on the moon was built by a company in his hometown of Dover.

ILC Dover, now located in Frederica, is a Delaware company that developed and made the spacesuits worn by the Apollo astronauts.

“I personally know several of my neighbors in Dover that worked on the Apollo suit program. Anyone alive and aware of what was taking place in the 1960s and ’70s would agree that it was a fascinating time as we fought the space race with Russia and then watched as our astronauts walked on the moon,” he said.

Mr. Ayrey retired from ILC Dover in 2019 after 41 years of service. Along with managing the facilities that still test the spacesuits worn by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, he represented ILC as its historian.

His long tenure at ILC Dover inspired him to write a book, “Lunar Outfitters: Making the Apollo Space Suit,” which tells the story of ILC Dover and the period during the 1960s and early ’70s when they were the prime contractor chosen by NASA to design and fabricate the Apollo spacesuit.

“I came to ILC in 1977, just a few years after the final Apollo-era missions, and became friends with many of the folks who took part in the Apollo suit program,” Mr. Ayrey said.

“Having retired from ILC last year after 41 years of service, I felt it was necessary to tell the story of these people who took part in the program,” he said. “I was personally inspired by my memories of watching Neil Armstrong and the others who walked on the moon when I was a teenager.”

ILC Industries employee, Nelson Wyatt, right, greets Apollo 11 astronaut and first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, in May, 1969, just a couple of months before Mr. Armstrong took flight. Mr. Armstrong was visiting ILC in Dover for the final fit check of his Apollo spacesuit. Mr. Nelson passed away a few years ago but was one of many who gave Mr. Ayrey the inspiration to tell this story.

“Lunar Outfitters” tells the story of ILC Industries and the challenges it had designing and building the Apollo spacesuits.

“ILC was a true underdog in the competition to provide the spacesuits for Apollo,” Mr. Ayrey said. “They were a division of Playtex, famous for their bras and girdles. They were competing against major aerospace companies in the race to suit our astronauts for lunar survival.”

Mr. Ayrey said ILC eventually won that contract but not without significant difficulty.

“The men and women that met the challenges were truly heroes, and this book highlights many of these people,” he said. “I also include the technical details about the Apollo suit models, so that it can be referenced in future years by historians, spacesuit engineers and those responsible for preserving the suits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.”

Mr. Ayrey said the book took him three years to write.

“I found it to be very difficult at the start,” he said. “I’d write my introduction, review it the next day and then rewrite it. This went on, over and over, for weeks. Finally, I realized I just needed to keep moving forward and worry about the editing and flow of things when it was done. That did the trick, and I found that after you get further into writing, it does come easier.”

In the book, Mr. Ayrey describes how ILC engineer Len Shepard decided in 1952 that the United States would eventually need a true spacesuit, since it was becoming obvious that space travel for humans was just around the corner.

Mr. Shepard, followed shortly thereafter by George Durney in 1956, set out to make their ILC spacesuit the best available. This struggle lasted over the next 10 years, until they refined the suits that NASA would finally accept.

“This would turn into the model suit worn by Neil and Buzz (Aldrin) on July 20, 1969,” Mr. Ayrey said.

ILC Industries engineer George Durney stands with one of the early development spacesuits he was making sometime around 1958. Mr. Durney is credited with laying the foundation for what would become the Apollo spacesuit. (Submitted photo/ILC Dover)

“Many find it interesting that the challenges to design and engineer the suits came down to the ladies that sewed. Early in the suit’s development, engineers may have had a vision of how the suits should go together, but it was the ladies sitting at their Singer sewing machines that had to help the engineers figure out how to put it all together,” he added. “They were the true heroes. If their work resulted in a seam failure, an astronaut could lose their life.”

One of Mr. Ayrey’s biggest challenges was making sure every fact in the book was accurate.

“I had to make sure the facts were correct after 50 to 60 years had passed,” Mr. Ayrey said. “I was able to interview many of the former employees, but after many years have passed, it was difficult getting the detailed facts. No one can recall from memory the smallest of details from this many years ago.”

He said he was fortunate to have collected thousands of the original Apollo files that documented the suit design, issues and weekly status reports.

“These all helped paint the true picture of what was happening at the time,” Mr. Ayrey said. “It was difficult to pull all these documents together to get the true stories as they developed. But it was like finding gold when I found the details I needed.”

He said he was particular in adding photos and illustrations to best tell the book’s tale.

“Without that, it would be impossible to tell the story,” Mr. Ayrey said. “My publisher pushed back at first, but they finally agreed after reviewing the manuscript.”

A seamstress works on an Apollo spacesuit using a specially designed sewing machine that would fit the entire suit under it. (Submitted photo/ILC Dover)

He said the book has received great feedback.

“The book was finally released in late September, and a few days following its release, it was the No. 1 seller on Amazon under Science and Technology,” Mr. Ayrey said. “I’ve received feedback from many folks that I know or just met through the release of the book who are true, hardcore space enthusiasts. So far, they are agreeing it’s the best book out there on the subject.”

Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins and Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott, who used the suit when he walked on the moon, shared the same sentiments.

“A space suit: a miniature space craft, so well designed for Apollo missions as described in this book. Excellent throughout, so comprehensive, so enjoyable.” Mr. Scott said in a review.

“That was quite an honor, having them read it and giving it their thumbs-up,” Mr. Ayrey said.

Moving forward, the author hopes to make sure anyone who is still alive and worked on the Apollo suit program is made aware of the book, as well as the families who grew up watching their parents go to work each day on the program.

“They had so much pride in what they did, and they deserve to have this story preserved for themselves and their families,” Mr. Ayrey said. “Following that, I want to make sure others, such as the aspiring engineers at NASA or anyone studying spacesuit design, find this book, so that they learn the history of the very first, true spacesuit.”

But he also wants Delaware residents to know the significant role that ILC played in the space program.

“Delaware has a lot of great history, and the spacesuits are a part of it,” Mr. Ayrey said. “As time passes, many either forget or more likely, are not even aware of, the role this Dover company played in making the Apollo missions the success that they were. The most famous images that define the success of the Apollo missions show the spacesuited astronauts on the lunar surface, the suits that were made in Dover.”

The book, published by the University Press of Florida, is available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Arshon Howard is a freelance writer living in Dover.