The Mystique of the Space Suit


Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour's remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross' helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour’s remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross’ helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Wherever astronauts go, from the beginning of the human spaceflight program to the present, they have been characterized by their uniform. Nothing sets astronauts apart from ordinary Americans more than the physical existence of a space suit, and in this instance the astronaut as “everyman” is both affirmed and denied for they bounded from the rest of society by this symbol. Often described as a “spacecraft for one,” space suits exist as highly complex, technical systems. For the wearer of a space suit, it represents protection, a life-line extending into the depths of outer space, but for the public, who never see the space suit in person, it exists as a symbol. As such it embodies dreams and beliefs about who and what we are, and what we may become.

This even goes so far as to suggest our connections to our larger environment of Earth, the Solar System, and the universe. These concepts are not just projected onto the material space suit, but are contained in its physical construction and invested in the astronauts who wear them. Consciously or subconsciously these beliefs and philosophies are constructed through space suit design and manufacturing and then by their use of astronauts. Once in operation the physical object projects these philosophies onto the world around it; the space suit is a highly charged, metaphysical object that affects both the wearer and the observer.

The astronaut in his space suit accentuated the body of the individual, making those who flew on the Apollo program seem much larger than life, much stronger than they were, and much more virile than they might have been. Due to the embodied beliefs and philosophies conjured by these suits, the astronauts facilitated new possibilities of understanding for those with whom they came into contact.

In both fact and fiction, the space suit has been a core representation of the astronaut, essentially a knight’s armor worn heroically as the individual conducts his noble mission. More than any other single artifact of the Moon landing program the Apollo space suit represented the values that supported Americans going into space in the first place. It symbolized and reified the utopian desire to colonize the Solar System and make a perfect society at a new and pristine place beyond the corrupt Earth.

It also stood, as cultural historian Debra Benita Shaw wrote, “as a metaphor for the transcendent power of scientific ingenuity and technological know-how….It is thus a significant icon in contemporary cultural representations of the body in both outer and terrestrial space.”

As an enduring icon of Apollo, the space suited astronauts on the Moon conjured images of power and masculinity far beyond that actually present. The anonymity of those astronauts, with their visors down similar to medieval knights made them even more mysterious and attractive. Without intending it, the space suit became synonymous with a set of values referring “to heroism and thus to the Cartesian (masculine) subject identified by the Proper Name but the Name itself becomes curiously disconnected from the individual to which it actually refers.”

At some level, therefore, the Apollo astronaut in his space suit projected the image of the hardbody of masculinity that author Susan Jeffords narrates in Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1994). This image became prevalent in the 1980s, but Apollo anticipated that later development by twenty years.

By being consumed by a space suit, as Donna Haraway has pointed out in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), the astronaut essentially became a cyborg as an iconic space suit established the relationship between human and machine. Cyborg ontology is a critical element of thinking about the duality of this relationship, confounding the sense in which bodies move in apposition to the technology

Additionally, Megan Stern’s analysis of visored astronauts in spacesuits suggest that they are essentially anonymous, a screen on which anyone might project any attribute from fantasies of heroism to submission. Therefore, the Apollo astronauts in their suits became screens for the whole of America to project its hopes, wishes, fears, and horrors. Each astronaut felt this keenly, as they have lived out the remainder of their lives in the glare of American fame and the sense of expectations never fully satisfied. Unable always to reflect the qualities of strength, authority, and rationality so often projected on them, the astronauts have displayed a fragility since Apollo that is both perplexing and troubling for many who see them in later years.

Marina Benjamin further described this in Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond (2003) when she encountered three Apollo astronauts at a celebrity and collectors show. She wrote that they were “just like movie stars; they burned brightly in the glare of publicity when they were offered good parts to play and then, when the roles dried up, so did they.” Their space suits, however, represented the triumph of technology over living organisms. Those suits dominate the essence of what it means to be an astronaut; they have since Apollo and continue to do so today.

 

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3 Responses to The Mystique of the Space Suit

  1. Guillaume says:

    A really nice summary of the “thing.” I might add that I was struck by how fragile these things are in reality, from being shown one out at Garber in the cold room decades ago, all the way to a demo downtown of a practice suit where we were told never to touch the shield because traces would be extremely hard to remove. ‘Also remember meeting one of the Apollo astronauts (I’ll keep his name private) at the Paris Air Show in the 90s, and how kind, level-headed (i.e. professional,) but also lost he seemed to be. Without all the kit’n kaboodle, though, and with people more interested in seeing the Fulcrum and Flanker than a nice retiree, it made for a very pleasant chat, and yes, a nice autograph (’cause even as a professional historian, I’m still an aerospace geek…)

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  2. McGlynn says:

    I enjoyed this post until I read the last two paragraphs and, in particular, this quote at the end of the post, “just like movie stars; they (the astronauts) burned brightly in the glare of publicity when they were offered good parts to play and then, when the roles dried up, so did they.”
    That statement is a fairly controversial and uneducated postulation. I can personally say that the majority of Apollo Astronauts are not the fragile, unsatisfied, dried up individuals that are portrayed at the end of this article. In my experience, it is quite the opposite. There is a constant demand on their time in the corporate, academic, aerospace worlds and some are still working for NASA. Their schedules are fully booked with requests coming in from around the world. They are constantly on the road fulfilling engagements for a population that is hungry to hear their story. Shortly, a movie is to be released about one specific Apollo Astronaut to premier in the United States at the South by SouthWest Film Festival having already been premiered in England.
    In fact, a person who is knowledgeable about the activities of the Apollo astronauts could state that the Apollo A7L suits have dried up (or disintegrated) and in need of constant attention while the astronauts are still a shining bright beacon telling the story of what America and it’s citizenship can do when they dream of the impossible.
    To paraphrase one of my history professors, it could be said of the authors quoted in the last two paragraphs that they did some research, found some facts and manipulated those facts to suit their thesis. In the end, their theory is erroneous. It would be interesting to see if their research notes could indeed back up such statements. It is doubtful that their research is very thorough on the matter and that throws their claims into question.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. spacegary says:

    Mr. McGlynn makes a good point – the Apollo astronauts I’ve had the good fortune to meet are some of the most vibrant and vital octogenarians I’ve ever met. They’ve all been on a grand adventure and have never lost the optimism and excitement of it. They are a joy to talk to – quite opposite to “dried up”. Thank you.

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