One Giant Leap for Innovation: Chaos behind the Lunar Spacesuit

We’ve all seen the famous photographs of astronaut Neil Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. But few people know the iconic spacesuit he was wearing would never have existed if not for an epic battle between a defense contractor and a lingerie company.

When President Kennedy delivered his famous 1961 promise to put on a man on the moon before the decade was over, NASA faced an urgent dilemma as the suits used in previous spaceflight missions would not work for the surface of the moon. The Apollo crew would need additional protection from the rocky terrain, a suit with maneuverability and dexterity to move freely, and the ability to bend over and collect samples. Most importantly, the suit needed to be self-sustaining, untethered to the landing module—a connection all previous spacesuits had relied on for oxygen and communication.

Though NASA issued a formal call for vendors, it was widely assumed that the Apollo spacesuit contract would be awarded to one of a handful of established military contractors. Not surprisingly, long-time military and /industrial supplier Hamilton-Standard won the bid. The award, however, came with an unexpected caveat: Hamilton-Standard would need to subcontract and work with Playtex. Best known in the 1960’s for designing women’s bras and girdles, Playtex had caught NASA’s eye by proposing an unconstrained approach to spacesuit design, dismissing conventional fitted suits and hard shells in favor of soft lightweight layers and flexible joints. An irate Hamilton-Standard refused to accept that a lingerie company could out-design a seasoned military supplier, and secretly created and presented its own prototype to NASA. When the prototype failed, Hamilton-Standard blamed Playtex, who promptly lost their subcontractor status.

Three years later, NASA still had minimal progress from Hamilton-Standard and no suit for its lunar walk. In order to expedite progress, NASA decided to rebid the contract through a staged spacesuit standoff: a competition between two of the top existing contractors, each of whom would present their best spacesuit prototype for a series of rigorous tests. After the 1962 debacle, Playtex was considered out of the running. Conventional wisdom held that a consumer brand couldn’t handle the complex engineering required to make a next-generation spacesuit. But the decade was half over, JFK’s promise loomed large, and there was no time for convention. With only six weeks left until the deadline, NASA relented, allowing Playtex to reenter the competition with the stipulation that (unlike other entrants) the lingerie company would need to fund its own prototype.

The Playtex team—a dozen designers and engineers, led by a car mechanic and a former TV repairman, and backed by a small army of seamstresses—worked in 24-hour shifts for six weeks straight. Focusing on craft-handiwork and staying true to their unorthodox approach to material design, they developed a suit with flexible joints and bellows, and a soft outer shell. When the competition came, Playtex’s unconventional suit soundly outperformed its competitors, acing 12 of NASA’s 22 tests. And—since one competitor’s suit helmet blew completely off during pressurization and the other competitor’s suit inflated so much that it wouldn’t fit through the lunar module’s doorway—NASA scrapped its plans to name a runner-up and awarded the sole contract to Playtex. The lingerie company went on to develop the iconic A7L spacesuit, a 21-layer nimble, reliable, comfortable suit that allowed Neil Armstrong to safely and successfully take his first steps on the moon.

In hindsight, NASA probably should have expected a non-linear path to finding the right solution. Innovation, like space travel, takes an indirect route. There’s a common misconception that when launching to the moon, the rocket starts from the launch pad and shoots off in a straight line directly to the final target . However, this is far from the true path.  Astronauts must first spend time in Earth’s orbit, circling and gradually building to a wider orbit that lets them reach further into space. Eventually, their orbit around Earth becomes so wide that is intersects with a lunar orbit, where they circle again and again before finally getting close enough to set foot on the moon. Innovation works the same way: not in straight lines, but in iterative cycles.

The messy truth is that when we’re facing a new challenge, we don’t know enough in the beginning to line up with our target and launch directly to our goal. The point of going in a circular motion is that we pick up information along the way. Time spent “in orbit” helps us gather information we’ll need on the next pass, and the next, to reach further beyond our assumptions and get closer to the target we actually need to hit. It involves paying attention to what we know now and gathering what we can learn from each consecutive pass. When does the innovation journey end?  It doesn’t. That’s one of the most uncomfortable and exhilarating realities to accept. Like space, innovation has no edges and no ending. Even when it yields a successful outcome, we must always keep iterating; we never fully arrive. Whenever we think we’re where we want to land, it proves simply to be a launching point for where we need to aim next.

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