The Women Behind The Apollo 11
No women have been to the moon, but they were instrumental in the success of the missions. They worked in the control room, designed flight software, and calculated backup plans.
In particular, The Apollo 11 mission launched in 1969 wouldn’t have been possible without the support of women. Yes, amongst the brains behind the moon landing and working at NASA there were also several ladies like: JoAnn Morgan, aerospace engineer on her debut as the first female launch controller; the computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who led the team that created the onboard computer system for the Apollo missions; Mary Jackson, NASA’s first African-American female engineer, Katherine Johnson, aerospace technologist who calculated the trajectories, launch windows and emergency backup return paths for many flights, including Apollo 11; Judy Sullivan the lead engineer for the biomedical system for the mission, working to ensure the astronauts were healthy enough for spaceflight.
However, what intrigues us the most is the work has been done behind the scene by seamstresses like Eleanor Foraker who – working for Playtex/ILC– sewed the astronauts’ metal and plastic spacesuits entirely by hand.
The Apollo spacesuit is one of the most intricate garments ever assembled and yet one of the underrated technical challenges of going to the Moon. “I would leave the plant at five o’clock in the morning and be back by seven – she said- but it was worth it, it really was.” She added that she worked 80-hour weeks during the Apollo era, had no holidays for three years straight, and suffered two nervous breakdowns.
According to Nicholas de Monchaux, who wrote “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo“, the definitive history of the Apollo spacesuit development:
Making each suit was a great challenge and comprised of 21 layers of gossamer-thin fabric, sewn to a precise tolerance of 1/64th of an inch. Some of the layers were composed of bra and girdle material, including nylon tricot. Seams in the spacesuits had to be sewn to the precision of the width of a single straight pin. Every stitch of every inch of spacesuit seam in every layer was counted to ensure quality and safety. Those sophisticated flexible balloons had also to be inflated and pressurized from the inside—meaning, they had to carry around a tiny version of the atmosphere human beings require to stay alive.
The book tells the story of the twenty-one-layer spacesuit in twenty-one chapters addressing twenty-one topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the twentieth century. It touches, among other things, on eighteenth-century androids, Christian Dior’s New Look, Atlas missiles, cybernetics and cyborgs, latex, JFK’s carefully cultivated image, the CBS lunar broadcast soundstage, NASA’s Mission Control, and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning. The twenty-one-layer spacesuit, de Monchaux argues, offers an object lesson. It tells us about redundancy and interdependence and about the distinctions between natural and man-made complexity; it teaches us to know the virtues of adaptation and to see the future as a set of possibilities rather than a scripted scenario.
As we know, in the end, those suits worked perfectly, and they became powerful cultural symbols. A victory of elegant softness over engineered hardness, of adaptation over cybernetics.