Nicholas de Monchaux

Author Nicholas de Monchaux on the story of how the twenty-one layer Apollo Spacesuit, made by Playtex, was a triumph of intimacy over engineering, and what it teaches us.

Howl5 ft1 header
Howl5 web ft1 pressure suit
T-1 Pressure Suit
T-1 from a 1952 Air Force press release.
Photo: courtesy National Archives at College Park
Howl5 web ft1 john young
John Young
Astronaut John Young posing in his David Clark Gemini spacesuit, 1963.
Photo: NASA Image S-63-15077, courtesy Johnson Space Center

Nicholas de Monchaux is Professor and Head of Architecture at MIT. He is a partner in the architecture practice modem, and a founder of the design technology company, Local Software. He is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press, 2011), winner of the Eugene Emme award from the American Astronautical Society, as well as Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design, and the Nature of Cities.

— Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
— How did you come up with the idea for your book, “Spacesuit,” which tells the story of the twenty-one layer Apollo spacesuit and topics relevant to the suit, the body and 20th century technology?

As a graduate student at Princeton, I discovered Reyner Banham’s great book, Scenes in America Deserta, in which he writes that one learns the most about architecture in its absence, and that the architecture of the desert is the most instructive environment on the core nature and needs of architecture. Also, for a seminar on domestic space, I wanted to write about the most extreme, non-architectural domestic space that could inform us about architecture, and that led me to the Apollo space program which sustained a human on the surface of the moon–the most hostile environment ever encountered by mankind. It turned out to be a very difficult, complicated story, and for that term paper, I submitted twenty-one one-page papers that tried to get into the story of the Apollo spacesuit made by the Playtex bra company.


Later, I was invited to give a lecture at the Santa Fe Institute on the theme of complexity and design, and so I returned to this subject and, as I’ve learned, everyone is interested in spacesuits. I just barely scratched the surface, and about eight years later, the book was published.

— In your book, you discuss the actual origins of space, referencing Milton:

Milton coined the word, “Space,” as the space between worlds in the context where space is an environment outside of the earthly realm, which is inherently hostile to human occupation. You also have the space of the architect—and the space of outer space is actually the opposite of the space of the architect, because it is a space that humans cannot encounter without dying, and so must enter exclusively through a dependence on technological mediation. Despite the utopian renderings we see nowadays from the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, space is mostly a place where we project our fantasies of who we are and how we want to be, and that has a relationship to technology. Space has a very different physical definition for different disciplines, from medicine to astronautics.

— You discuss the spacesuit—this twenty-one layer messy assemblage made by the Playtex bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques—as a kind of anti-hero, a women’s lingerie company that manufactures a textile that plays an important life-or death role in the survival of an astronaut.

One of the main narratives of the book is that the spacesuit stands between the body and not just the extreme environment of outer space, but the organizational and technological environment of the space race, which was all based upon techniques to develop missile defense systems and then nuclear weapons. The engineering systems of the space race weren’t designed for human habitation or occupation in any way, and were designed, in fact, for the reverse. The original Mercury suits were designed as emergency suits, and the Gemini suit allowed you to survive a brief expedition into outer space. [The Mercury and Gemini suits] weren’t designed to allow you to walk around and do work because it’s very hard to design a pressurized capsule shaped like a person.


My book talks about the engineering problem both from a military industrial perspective and a much more MacGyvering model. A five-person industrial design team at Playtex, staffed by a former TV repairman who was an MIT dropout, certainly knew something about engineering by working adjacent to the production line of bras and girdles, and working with fabrics and rubber dipping. These were devices and mechanisms that could allow a pressurized envelope to be inflated to very high pressure but still be able to be moved by and walked around by the person inside of it. And then, when that was adapted further, instead of making a single layer that could try to do everything, they just added more and more layers of different kinds of fabrics that already existed.


And so, this epidermal structure, just like our own skin, was very soft. It was made by hand by women, and it didn’t fit into the larger system of how things were produced for the space race, which result in all kinds of problems. When I was at the Smithsonian in the early 2000s, the Apollo astronauts came to visit their suits, and I remember asking Tom Stafford about his suit. He said, “It was just a truck,” he said. “This is a part of me,” pointing to the suit. It was a very special kind of object but particularly remarkable in that larger technological system of the Apollo infrastructure that it had as much to do with the body inside, as it did with all the systems outside of it.

Gemini Spacesuits
— How did you come up with the idea for your book, “Spacesuit,” which tells the story of the twenty-one layer Apollo spacesuit and topics relevant to the suit, the body and 20th century technology?

As a graduate student at Princeton, I discovered Reyner Banham’s great book, Scenes in America Deserta, in which he writes that one learns the most about architecture in its absence, and that the architecture of the desert is the most instructive environment on the core nature and needs of architecture. Also, for a seminar on domestic space, I wanted to write about the most extreme, non-architectural domestic space that could inform us about architecture, and that led me to the Apollo space program which sustained a human on the surface of the moon–the most hostile environment ever encountered by mankind. It turned out to be a very difficult, complicated story, and for that term paper, I submitted twenty-one one-page papers that tried to get into the story of the Apollo spacesuit made by the Playtex bra company.


Later, I was invited to give a lecture at the Santa Fe Institute on the theme of complexity and design, and so I returned to this subject and, as I’ve learned, everyone is interested in spacesuits. I just barely scratched the surface, and about eight years later, the book was published.

Howl5 web ft1 pressure suit
T-1 Pressure Suit
T-1 from a 1952 Air Force press release.
Photo: courtesy National Archives at College Park
— In your book, you discuss the actual origins of space, referencing Milton:

Milton coined the word, “Space,” as the space between worlds in the context where space is an environment outside of the earthly realm, which is inherently hostile to human occupation. You also have the space of the architect—and the space of outer space is actually the opposite of the space of the architect, because it is a space that humans cannot encounter without dying, and so must enter exclusively through a dependence on technological mediation. Despite the utopian renderings we see nowadays from the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, space is mostly a place where we project our fantasies of who we are and how we want to be, and that has a relationship to technology. Space has a very different physical definition for different disciplines, from medicine to astronautics.

— You discuss the spacesuit—this twenty-one layer messy assemblage made by the Playtex bra company, using hand-stitched couture techniques—as a kind of anti-hero, a women’s lingerie company that manufactures a textile that plays an important life-or death role in the survival of an astronaut.

One of the main narratives of the book is that the spacesuit stands between the body and not just the extreme environment of outer space, but the organizational and technological environment of the space race, which was all based upon techniques to develop missile defense systems and then nuclear weapons. The engineering systems of the space race weren’t designed for human habitation or occupation in any way, and were designed, in fact, for the reverse. The original Mercury suits were designed as emergency suits, and the Gemini suit allowed you to survive a brief expedition into outer space. [The Mercury and Gemini suits] weren’t designed to allow you to walk around and do work because it’s very hard to design a pressurized capsule shaped like a person.


My book talks about the engineering problem both from a military industrial perspective and a much more MacGyvering model. A five-person industrial design team at Playtex, staffed by a former TV repairman who was an MIT dropout, certainly knew something about engineering by working adjacent to the production line of bras and girdles, and working with fabrics and rubber dipping. These were devices and mechanisms that could allow a pressurized envelope to be inflated to very high pressure but still be able to be moved by and walked around by the person inside of it. And then, when that was adapted further, instead of making a single layer that could try to do everything, they just added more and more layers of different kinds of fabrics that already existed.


And so, this epidermal structure, just like our own skin, was very soft. It was made by hand by women, and it didn’t fit into the larger system of how things were produced for the space race, which result in all kinds of problems. When I was at the Smithsonian in the early 2000s, the Apollo astronauts came to visit their suits, and I remember asking Tom Stafford about his suit. He said, “It was just a truck,” he said. “This is a part of me,” pointing to the suit. It was a very special kind of object but particularly remarkable in that larger technological system of the Apollo infrastructure that it had as much to do with the body inside, as it did with all the systems outside of it.

Howl5 web ft1 john young
John Young
Astronaut John Young posing in his David Clark Gemini spacesuit, 1963.
Photo: NASA Image S-63-15077, courtesy Johnson Space Center

Nicholas de Monchaux is Professor and Head of Architecture at MIT. He is a partner in the architecture practice modem, and a founder of the design technology company, Local Software. He is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press, 2011), winner of the Eugene Emme award from the American Astronautical Society, as well as Local Code: 3,659 Proposals about Data, Design, and the Nature of Cities.

— Princeton Architectural Press, 2016
Gemini Spacesuits