Scientists Are Racing to Save Neil Armstrong's Deteriorating Spacesuit

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images / AFP/Getty Images

While the public debate surrounding the elimination of drinking straws and other disposable objects rages on, museums are presented with an opposite challenge: figuring out how to preserve artifacts made from plastic. As The New York Times reports in an article highlighting the dilemma, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is just one of the many partly plastic objects at risk of falling apart.

The spacesuit was designed to withstand the elements of space and "provide a life-sustaining environment for the astronaut during periods of extravehicular activity or during unpressurized spacecraft operation," according to the National Air and Space Museum, where it has been displayed or stored since 1971. However, it wasn't meant to stand the test of time.

The suit was constructed from 21 different layers of plastic—including nylon, Mylar, and Teflon, to name a few—but a layer of neoprene has proven to be the most problematic. The custodians of Armstrong’s spacesuit predicted that this layer would harden over time, making the suit stiff and brittle. When the risk of damage became critical in 2006, the suit was removed from its public display at the Air and Space Museum and sent into storage to lessen the risk of degradation. Later, a brown stain was discovered on the suit’s torso area—a result of plasticizer escaping from the air supply tubes.

Fortunately, the deterioration was stopped in time, but other vintage spacesuits with plastic components haven’t been so lucky. Plastics are especially hard to preserve because they’re only about 150 years old, and thus museum conservators don’t have much precedent to learn from.

“We have a very short history, in comparison to other materials, in understanding how long those materials last,” Hugh Shockey, lead conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, told the Times.

This is proving to be a common problem at museums around the world. In order to find a solution, conservators are first tasked with determining what kind of plastic each artifact is made of, which will determine how long the item may survive without intervention.

Next, the challenge is figuring out how to best preserve the item to slow the degradation process, which could involve limiting its exposure to UV rays, keeping the temperature and humidity low, or doing what’s necessary to prevent oxidation.

As for Armstrong’s spacesuit, it will ultimately be displayed in a case specially made for the purpose, which will be kept at 63°F and 30 percent humidity. Museum staff hope to have it ready by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next year.

[h/t The New York Times]