Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Breaking The Mold


Putting a spacesuit on is called "donning". Removing the suit is called "doffing." I don't know what it's called when you dip yourself in plaster to make body-molds that will decide all your space-suity parts, and custom seat-liners for space crafts (but I'll bet the Russians have a slang term for it).

WIRED published some photos awhile back, sensationalizing the "butt molds"; I normally enjoy the Wired family of blogs, but this time, I'm not linking to them on principle. I grow peevish when media outlets inflict innuendo onto perfectly reasonable operational tasks. That's only funny when astronauts do it.

Mercury Astronauts
The Mercury Seven with their Body Molds, 1959.
Left to right: Shepard, Glenn, Schirra, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton,
Grissom, and director of the Space Task Group, Robert Gilruth.

Not surprisingly, when leg room was at a minimum and everything was made to precise specification, these first astronauts joked that you didn't "ride" in the tiny Mercury and Gemini capsules –- you "wore" them. Over the years, even as crafts became slightly roomier, such fittings are still the norm.

Current astronaut Clay Anderson wrote a humorous journal entry about how he was "fitted" for his seat on a Soyuz, perhaps the most amusing part being his exclamation that "[A team of five engineers] took measurements in places that I didn't even know I had!"

Astronaut body molds
NASA Langley Research Center, 1959

Two programs later, astronauts were also fitted with pressure boots, also designed from plaster molds of each astronaut's foot. Then, lunar boots were donned over the pressure boots with tight seals. I've searched high and low for photographs of the foot molds that were used, but thus far, have had no luck.

The archives do, however, include this eerie snap of casts from all Apollo astronauts. You can just make out "Borman" and "Bean" on the two front sets – alas, the other surnames (and rumored nicknames) are too blurry, and I've been unable to find any other close-ups in the public domain.

Apollo Crew Hand Molds
Houston, Texas - 1968

Of course, everyone wants to know which are Neil's... Apollo 11 always gets the spotlight! The hand-casts of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins are in the US Space and Rocket Center at NASA Marshall in Huntsville, Alabama ... and I got a great picture of them myself this past January:

Astronaut hand molds
Top: Armstrong - Right: Collins - Left: Aldrin
US Space & Rocket Center - Huntsville, AL, 2010

Apollo-era gloves were custom-molded precisely to each individual hand – with thin silicone-rubber fingertips, which allowed astronauts to touch with greater dexterity when operating equipment or gathering rock samples. Neat, huh? There are lots of great viewing opportunities of donning & doffing in the Pre-Flight Suit Images section of the Apollo Library, if you have like a spare week to kill...

If you just want the snack-sized version, visit NASA's Spacesuit Gallery to see the evolution of the spacesuit through many eras of exploration.