The Original Sputnik Shuffle – Reflections on the Apollo Spacesuit

I recently found the following clip on YouTube:


While this short video should be appreciated for both its humor and its strangeness, there is much more content behind it than appears at first perusal.  It seems to date from a period of exploration into spacesuit technology that is wonderfully documented by Nicholas de Monchaux in Spacesuit:  Fashioning Apollo; and the hyperactive movements of the dancing cosmonaut are probably designed to exhibit the range of motion of the suit (notice the clock-face motion towards the end of the clip, before the “running man.”)  More interesting is that this is an exhibition of soft-suit technology, at a time when NASA was primarily interested in the hard-shell suits being designed by prominent aeronautics and defense contractors.

X-Ray Photograph of Soft Space Suit

Example of Hard-Shell Spacesuit

The development of soft-suit technology would inspire (in some respects) radical architectural speculation into “soft architecture” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Unlike “hard” architecture (or hard-shell spacesuit technology, for that matter), soft architecture was purposefully designed for its malleability, adaptability, mobility and impermanence; for pop-culturally inflected groups, like Archigram, soft architecture was a symbol of liberation and independence that worked well within the developing paradigms of planned obsolescence and intensifying product cycles of mid-century capitalism.  For other experimental architects and radical theorists of architecture, soft architecture was a model for the kind of transnational, fluid, leisurely living appropriate for a post-political era that implied the dissolution of national boarders and the unity of humanity in the face of the potential for mutual nuclear annihilation.

Mike Webb: Suit-a-Loon

Archigram: Cushicle

Jean-Paul Jungmann: Inflatable Architecture

Utopie: Examples of Radical Architecture

Many of these metaphors, as well as the metaphorical and rhetorical force of much of this work, derives from the iconic imagery of the Apollo program, including that of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wearing their pristinely white, Playtex manufactured, hand-stitched soft spacesuits.  However, while the soft-suit eventually worked its way into the global imagination as a symbol of both human achievement and hope, and as a frightful example of humanity’s nascent conquest of the near solar system (and the military potential of this extraterrestrial outpost), the soft-suit itself had faced significant challenges from the military-industrial complex, and its distinct image of manned space flight.  In many ways, the conflicts between aeronautic and defense contractors, and the seamstresses at Playtex represents the alternative paths down which space exploration might have travelled; one embracing international cooperation and peaceful cohabitation, the other embracing the traditional militaristic and ideological positions of terrestrial impasse and imbroglio.  In other words, the “fluffy” imagery of the Playtex soft-suit may have meant the difference between an international space station and star wars.

Interestingly, hard-shell suit technology was based as much on the resilience and weight of the materials being used as it was on cultural perceptions pertaining to spacesuit design developed in science fiction imagery from the 1950s and early 1960s – something that can be seen in the incredible compendium of advertising images presented in Megan Prelinger’s Another Science Fiction:  Advertising the Space Race 1957 – 1962.  In this context, the hard-shell space suit frequently represented notions of chivalric courage heralding back to the knights of the middle ages.  As a result of this antiquated simulacra, the preferred aesthetic for the early manned space program at NASA was one of hard-edge lines, insect-like segmented bodies and a robotically inflected extension of the human organism.  The problem with these suits was that they universally exhibited a limited range of motion when compared to the soft suits produced by Playtex, and were incredibly uncomfortable, especially for the long durations during which they were designed to be worn.

While the Playtex suits out performed hard-shell suits, and passed test after test, the very fact that they were being produced by a company better known for brassieres and bustiers, rather than bombers and diving bells, by seamstresses, rather than engineers, exacerbated the perceptual challenges facing the adoption of what is now an icon of the American space program.  Luckily, leveler heads prevailed, and performance trumped perception, as the first American astronauts donned their soft suits for early manned space exploration, and a powerful new image of human ingenuity, will and creativity was born, or rather “crafted” by the hands of master seamstresses.   Sadly, this seems a form of imagery that will soon be allocated to the past, and along with it all of the sentiments which once stirred the world with a sense of shared humanity, even in the midst of diversity, for what better way to be reminded of the underlying similarities between peoples than through images of our blue Earth floating in a sea of darkness, or of homo ludens at play among the planets, bouncing along in the low gravity of our lunar satellite?

After all, it is really this sense of positive creation and optimism that is (and has been) represented in the images and artifacts of the American space program.  It was the sheer wonderment of the moon landing that compelled forward-looking architects to believe in the power of far-fetched, challenging thinking; and to want to transform a world cowed by the fear of mutual nuclear annihilation, and stained with the guilt of two tragic world conflicts separated only by two short decades.  In a world marred by the Kennedys’ assassinations, civil unrest, the cold war and Vietnam, the space program was a beacon of hope; and it is unfortunate that, with the last flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, this beacon may be snuffed out under a president who was once compared to John F. Kennedy for his youth and vitality, and who campaigned on a platform of “Hope.”

Yet, if cynicism and complacency seem to be the dominant political tropes of today, the design community has proven itself equally cynical and equally complacent and incapable of inspiring a new generation to reach new heights of imagination, to find a way forward, through the muck that we’ve made.  It is strange that, in a time of global recession and limited building, at a time when, previously, the architectural imagination was fired with new ways of thinking, rooted in potential new ways of being, architectural projection seems so flaccid and meek; so tired, uninspired and indifferent to global concerns.  It is appalling that the only “original” approach, provided by one of the more original thinkers in contemporary architectural discourse, is to induce young architects to “go East,” to find work; to perpetuate the cycles of consumption and complaisance that wound the West down in the first place.

Thus, in mourning the slow demise of one of America’s greatest achievements, and as we wonder at the serious play, the “kludge” methods and the outrageously imaginative fruits of the early manned space program, and of those inspired by it, we also seem to mourn a general condition of intellectual lethargy, lackluster imagination and essential defeatism that has, thus far, permeated the stuffy and stifling air of this new century.  And while we can “hope” that the last decade has been but a prelude to something greater, something better, if unforeseen, hope is frequently the final refuge of those for whom achievement seems infinitely remote; like faith, it is a surrogate for reality, informing action in the absence of expectation, a way of moving towards the eternally receding horizon, simply because stopping is no longer an option.  Yet, the early space program reminds us that the future can be crafted; that, in the face of definite goals, invention and innovation follow, the imagination leaps forward in world-transforming flights of fancy, and men walk the moon in fluffy white suits.

Buzz Aldrin - the Original Moon Walk

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