When Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969, he was wearing a spacesuit crafted by Playtex, a company better known for making ladies’ bras and girdles.
With the Apollo lunar missions, one of the most iconic spacesuits ever designed was born: the Apollo A7L spacesuit. It’s widely unknown, however, that this spacesuit was actually introduced by a fashion company called the International Latex Corporation (ILC). Its cost, estimated at the time as $100,000 (more than $670,000 today), sounds high only if you think of it as couture. In reality, once helmet, gloves, and an oxygen-supplying backpack were added, it was a wearable spacecraft.
Cocooned within 21 layers of synthetics, neoprene rubber and metalized polyester films, Armstrong was protected from the airless Moon’s extremes of heat and cold (plus 240 Fahrenheit degrees in sunlight to minus 280 in shadow), deadly solar ultraviolet radiation and even the potential hazard of micrometeorites hurtling through the void at 10 miles per second.
Without the technology behind that brassiere (or girdle), the moon landing would have been impossible. It turns out that the 21-layers of gossamer-thin fabric in the Apollo spacesuits that kept Armstrong and Aldrin from “the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum”.
Several years later NASA ran a competition for a new suit and a dozen ILC employees broke back into their old offices to steal back their original designs that had been overlooked by Hamilton Standard. Working around the clock they finished the new suit and submitted it to NASA. It was a hit, NASA picked it, and the A7L was born. Hamilton Standard would go on to provide the oxygen tank for the suit.
Playtex’s spacesuit division split off from the main company in 1967, and it continues to serve as a NASA contractor under the name ILC Dover.