Neil Armstrong, attired in a Delaware-designed and manufactured space suit, in July 1969 took mankind’s first step on the moon. ILC Dover’s intricately layered sheathing was the only thing between him and the frigid void of outer space.
The Suit Behind the Step
Apollo space suits were far from mere “uniforms.” “Each suit was designed to sustain life while allowing for functional mobility,” said Tom Barr, of the manufacturing division of ILC. “The astronauts needed suits which were easy to put on, light in weight, convenient to store, and extremely reliable.” ILC Industries not only engineered these suits but also bore the moral weight of the astronauts’ lives on their corporate shoulders.
The genesis of ILC, short for International Latex Corporation, traces back to 1941/42 when it formed a specialty group to develop and manufacture products for the military. Initially based in Dover, ILC contributed life vests, rafts, and anti-exposure clothing during wartime. By 1947, it had been divided into four separate divisions: the Metals Division, Playtex, the Chemical Division, and the Pharmaceutical Division.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, ILC advanced into a multi-faceted enterprise. In 1952, the Metals Division in Dover received a contract to supply the Navy and Air Force with high-altitude pressure helmets. By 1956, the contract expanded to include pressure suits.
In 1962, the company’s Special Products Division started work on the Apollo space suit as a subcontractor to Hamilton Standard. This project eventually became so significant that by 1965, the newly-formed Government and Industrial Division was awarded the prime contract for the Apollo lunar space suits, increasing the workforce to 200 people.
The Cradle of Space Couture
“In the Apollo spacecraft, all the astronauts sat close together,” said James Clougherty, ILC Dover’s program manager for the shuttle suit. “The suits now had to be flexible, so they wouldn’t keep banging into each other.” ILC Dover solved the problem by pioneering the technology of jointed suits.
Meanwhile, Frederica became a hub for pioneering textile technologies, with a focus on developing materials for the suits, including the groundbreaking Beta cloth woven from ultrafine glass fibers. Together, these Delaware facilities synthesized a technological marvel that had to operate flawlessly in the unforgiving void of space.
During fiscal year 1968, NASA contracts constituted 90% of ILC’s total revenue and 86% of pre-tax profits. This underscored not just the financial dependency of ILC on NASA but its ethical obligation to safeguard the lives of astronauts. The thorough quality measures that permeated the entire process from initial sketches to the final product bore testimony to this commitment.
When Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface, they did so as living embodiments of ILC’s mastery over materials, engineering, and quality control. Every element of the suits, from the life support system to the mobility joints, functioned in perfect harmony.
Unsung Heroes in the Space Race
ILC suits subsequently traveled on every manned Apollo mission, from Apollo 11 in 1969 to Apollo 17 in 1972. Bruce Fergurson, a spokesman for ILC Industries, summarized it aptly: “Our suits were up there, and they did their job well.”
From its modest beginnings in the early 1940s to its critical supporting role in Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” the story of ILC stands as a tribute to the hidden heroes of technological innovation.