On 16 July 1969, three men flew to the moon. Their spacesuits have since been kept at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, but nothing lasts forever. The suit Neil Armstrong was wearing when he became the first man on the Moon hasn't been on display for 13 years - until the museum decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign in July 2015. Dubbed 'Reboot the Suit,' it has 9,477 backers and has managed to raise more than $700,000.
On 16 July this year, exactly 50 years after the flight, freshly restored Armsrtrong's suit will go back on public display. First on temporary display, it'll later become the centrepiece of the museum's upcoming Destination Moon exhibition, slated for launch in 2022.
Armstrong's historic garment is among the most fragile items in the museum's collection. So how did the Smithsonian go about preserving it for future generations?
In 2015, restoration work began on the suit's EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) gloves so that the team could perfect their techniques before tackling the main suit. Some 50 X-ray images were used to record the suit's condition and investigate its inner workings. The suit was originally X-rayed back in the 1960s during and after production for quality control purposes, and even today, new spacesuit gloves are still routinely X-rayed to ensure that no pins are left inside.
Digital x-ray image of one of Neil Armstrong’s gloves
Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
The museum also used CT (Computed Tomography) scanning to get a clear picture of the suit's interior elements, while chemical analysis has helped the team to preserve various aspects of the garment, such as stabilising the silk fibres on the suit's US flag to prevent further colour fading. A modular, 3D-printed mannequin was created not only to physically support the suit when it goes on display but also to form part of an air circulation system designed to reduce unwanted gases emitted by degradation of the suit's materials.
But it's not just about preserving the physical suit. The museum has also digitised it to ensure its longevity and make it accessible to people around the world. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) has previously created a digital 3D version of the Apollo 11 Command Module 'Columbia' that can be explored online, and will shortly release a 3D tour of Armstrong's spacesuit.
The 3D model is a useful way of creating an accurate 'map' of the suit, says Cathleen Lewis, spacesuit curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "We can embed this map with the most up-to-date knowledge of what has happened to the suit over the last 50 years and the detailed condition of the most minute features of the suit," she adds.
Structured light scanning was used to map the garment's basic structure and colour, with the DPO team projecting light patterns across the suit and recording how they deformed over the surface. The museum then used laser arm scanning to record more detailed surface geometry, triangulating hundreds of thousands of points across the suit that were then connected to map the surface. Combining the data with CT scans enabled the team to create a 3D animation of the suit. Photogrammetry was then used to add colour details, with hundreds of photos taken from different angles tied together using specialised software.
The team faced two major technical challenges in 3D scanning the suit. First, dealing with reflective components, especially the face shield. "When the laser hits a fabric portion of the suit, it cleanly bounces back resulting in a very precise set of measurements, but when the laser hits the highly reflective gold face shield, it diffracts, causing a lot of noise in the scan," says Vince Rossi, branch manager for 3D digitisation in the Smithsonian’s DPO. So the museum had to blend and use only the best data from four different sensors to create a clean surface that represented the face shield.
The second issue was working with the CT data. The CT scan handled the interior fabric and rubber components quite well, says Rossi, but when the X-rays hit the interior metal components, the beams scattered, "giving us very noisy data which then needed to be carefully reverse-engineered to accurately reconstruct those noisy areas."
In autumn, the museum will start a similar conservation project on the spacesuit worn by Alan Shepard when he became the first American in space on 5 May 1961. And in future, as suits may have to be rotated in and out of the museum's Destination Moon gallery, it's likely that similar work will take place on the suits worn by Apollo 11 crew mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Words: Libby Plummer