This is a photo of Hazel Fellows, one of the women who sewed and assembled the first American space suits produced by the International Latex Corporation—a company better known for making Playtex girdles and bras.
Nicholas de Monchaux, an architecture professor, has a new book out about the design process that went into making a wearable life-support system that could protect humans in space. He gives a special focus to women like Ms. Fellows, whose sewing skills kept astronauts alive. It's a fascinating bit of untold history.
Txchnologist: Your book is a history of the spacesuit that shows how, in the midst of NASA’s mania for systems engineering, this technical device was created largely by seamstresses.
Nicholas de Monchaux: They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins. So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles.
Txch: Did the public know that Playtex had created this suit?
NdM: I think it’s hiding in plain sight. There wasn’t a huge publicity effort by NASA around it mostly because there wasn’t a focus generally on identifying general contractors. Nobody was allowed to put their own logo on anything. It was all a unified effort. By the same token, within the larger culture of the military industrial complex that NASA was a part of, having a girdle manufacturer was, if not embarrassing, than certainly less than totally expected.
Txch: Do you think that the Playtex seamstresses are the unsung heroes of the early space program?
NdM: In my imagination they certainly are. Like few others in the whole process, they really had the lives of the astronauts literally in their hands. They had a skill and dedication that was unparalleled. The same women have made U.S. space suits all the way up to the shuttle and space station era, so the skill is by no means obsolete.
... What became abundantly clear to me was that, not only was it not like any other design problem in the larger space effort, but it was precisely the opposite of any other design effort. The false starts were false starts that tried to design for the body from first principles as you might design a thrust nozzle or guidance system where you reduce something to a set of variables, put them into a systems engineering diagram and produce a component that met all the qualities of that diagram. That’s where you have Playtex drawing on a very different corpus of expertise: on couture sewing, on garment assembly, on stitching and biasing and all of the very different and special modes of expertise that fashion has always had in designing for the body.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.