If there’s anything to take away from Space Week, it’s an appreciation for the dizzying complexity that comes with sending humans into outer space. Exact precision must be taken every step of the way, from the endless calculations that are needed to design flight trajectory to the spacesuits that astronauts wear in space. Speaking of which, there’s a rather surprising story behind the design of the iconic Apollo spacesuits: they were designed by Playtex, the women’s undergarment company best known for making bras.
Designing a spacesuit is no easy task. The suits have 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. They also need to be tough, able to withstand a temperature range of perhaps 500º, from –280º in shadow to +240º in sun. The most daunting challenge, however, is that the suits have to be flexible. It’s easy enough to make a tank-like suit that will protect a person from the rigors of space. But making a suit that does that, and also moves with something like grace and ease—that turned out to be brutally difficult.
The company that managed to figure out how to solve the problem was Playtex, the famous maker of bras and girdles of the 1950s and 1960s. At one point, Playtex won a contract to help make the suits, serving as a subcontractor to Hamilton Standard. In a dramatic turn in 1965, Playtex was fired by Hamilton Standard, which wanted the suit contract for itself. After Playtex’s firing, NASA staged a competition to see who could make the best suit. Playtex wasn’t invited to participate in the face-off, and company officials immediately flew to Houston and, essentially, begged to be allowed to submit a suit into the competition, at their own expense, to be tested alongside the others. On top of that, they had only six weeks to do it.
After its furious, abbreviated development and production, the Playtex suit went head-to-head with its rivals in a demanding series of side-by-side tests. By the end of those tests, it became clear the Playtex suit was by far the best. Should you be hungry for more details on this fascinating underdog story, look no further.