Imagine you are an industrial designer, and this brief lands on your desk: “To build a garment that will hold up under the most extreme circumstances”—so far, so good, you think—“without the astronaut dying.” Would you blanch? That, says the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Amanda Young, the author of Spacesuits (powerHouse Books, 2009), was the daunting challenge for a handful of midcentury designers working at a quartet of largely untested companies—two of which were underwear makers.
People like Hubert Vykukal and Wiley Post (Will Rogers’s one-eyed pilot) came up with devices to protect astronauts from every conceivable harm, and along the way, they also invented or helped develop products with everyday applications: the glue that fixes braces to teeth, for instance, and the Support-Her sports bra. Yet the mission suits themselves, which were worn just once, have deteriorated terribly. “Nobody realized at the time that the materials they were using had such a short shelf life,” Young says. That makes the book practically the only way to see them, since most are tucked away in the deepest recesses of the museum—as far as the public is concerned, as distant as the moon.