Spacesuits are designed for specific missions, and longevity is not part of their purpose. How to slow down the deterioration of these suits is the job of Lisa Young, the objects conservator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“Polymers in general have about a 50-year life span, and now the suits are reaching that life year — many of the earlier suits — so we’re seeing a lot of degradation problems,” Young said.
Young began her conservation career by studying archaeological objects while in college. She said she became interested in plastics and rubbers because “it’s still a very new field in conservation.”
Her mother-in-law, Amanda Young, was the curator of the Air and Space spacesuit collection and called on Young for advice on how to slow down the suits’ degradation. Young studied the problem after winning a grant as part of a graduate internship in the 1990s.
In her research, Young concluded the best way to preserve a spacesuit is to control the environment. She told Federal News Radio, the suits are best preserved in very low humidity with a steady temperature, minimal access to ultraviolet radiation and invisible light, and a lot of ventilation because the materials are giving off gasses as they age. Young said she cannot take apart the suits and tries not to apply treatments that are too invasive to ensure the spacesuits are as close to their original form as possible.
Sometimes caring for the suits has required creative solutions. Young and museum curator Cathy Lewis were charged with moving about 270 suits from a storage facility in Suitland, Md., to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., some 30 miles away. Young came up with the idea to ship the suits by seatbelting them into waterproof coffins. The move of the spacesuits, started in November 2011, will be completed next week, and other museum artifacts will be moved in the coming years.
Young said the coolest part of her job is being able to “touch things that other people don’t get to touch.”
People are “really, really infatuated” with space flight, and even though NASA’s shuttle program has ended, children still want to become astronauts, she said.
“When you tell people that you’ve handled Neil Armstrong’s suit or worked on a spacesuit that was on the moon, people really relate to that,” she said. “I feel good that I’m preserving part of our history that I don’t want to see disappear because we may not get back to the moon, and these may be the only 12 suits that were ever on the moon’s surface.”