Book Review: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

In a brilliant contrivance, Nicolas de Monchaux adopts the structure of the Apollo spacesuit A7L for his first book, resulting in 21 overlapping – and at times redundant – chapters. Each deals with a different aspect of the A7L story, from its competition with harder alternatives to its production by foundation garment manufacturer Playtex. Among the outliers of these 21 “layers” are a section on the fragile image consciousness of JFK and an extensive history of upper atmosphere exploration from the Montgolfier ascensions to the U2 spy plane.

In the end, the positivism of systems thinking is at stake here. Central to this history for de Monchaux is The New Look epitomized by the post-war collections of Christian Dior. The powerful concept of “new looks” led to the adoption of systems thinking in numerous disciplines in post-war America, all hoping for a return to first principles. As a whole, this book records the victory by redundancy and adaptation over systems engineering in the Apollo spacesuit. For de Monchaux, the A7L epitomizes an alternative to “hard” design engineering: instead of reinventing the wheel, it layered and adapted preexisting materials and techniques to the requirements of an inhospitable place, literally fashioning an environment for extreme living.

Comprehensively researched, Spacesuit remixes traditional visual culture (photographs, paintings, drawings) and the kind of primary documents that architecture historians rarely have the prerogative to access (memoranda, technical manuals, interviews). de Monchaux’s background in architecture provides him with an intriguing lens, yielding cognitive leaps an engineer might be less likely to undertake.

In addition, the A7L provides a productive analogy for the making of buildings. It places the astronaut in an intimate architectural embrace, enabling them to explore an inhospitable environment. Like architecture – and unlike the systems thinking of the military-industrial complex so central to the history of Apollo – the A7L adapts existing materials and techniques to new contexts, meeting systems thinking at a fruitful middle ground. The book itself is one such adapted solution and a compelling object, clad in a black latex dust jacket that provides a tactile reference to one or more layers of the A7L. The future of architecture will be full of such compromise as a discipline based on obsolete production techniques adapts to changing expectations. But all-encompassing systems thinking, de Monchaux argues, fails to account for or enable the robustness of natural eco- and biological systems. It is to such robust systems that future buildings will need to adapt.

de Monchaux has made an ambitious attempt at rethinking the way we write histories of technology, raising a number of intriguing questions about the future of both design and applied science. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for designers, engineers and history buffs alike.

The MIT Press, 2011