Teamistry Season 1 Episode 08

The Team that Fashioned Apollo 11

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When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon for the first time, we don’t actually see his face. We see his moonsuit. That moonsuit — in effect — is Neil Armstrong; an inseparable part of this historic moment.

While the spacesuit kept him alive to tell that story in his own words, what went unnoticed is the extraordinary team that stitched it together. In the final episode of Season 1 of Teamistry, host Gabriela Cowperthwaite shines a light on the team of seamstresses and engineers whose meticulous craftwork, creativity, and dedication helped us realize the dream of putting a man on the moon. In this episode, Joanne Thompson and Jean Wilson — two of last surviving seamstresses who worked on the Apollo 11 moonsuits — talk about the intricate seams, needlework, and personal sacrifices that went into outfitting Neil Armstrong. We hear from Homer Reihm, one of the engineers who worked with the seamstresses, and Bill Ayrey, former historian at ILC Dover and Nicholas de Monchaux, author of ‘Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo’, who take us through the pivotal moments of this monumental task. Also, Janet Ferl, the current design engineering manager at ILC Dover, tells us how the legacy of dedication and teamwork on the Apollo 11 moonsuit continues to inspire the company today.


Episode Extras

Apollo 11 Safecraft Commander Neil Armstrong (front) and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. Aldrin (rear)


Gabriela: Joanne Thompson has a special relationship with the moon.

Joanne Thompson: I love to look at the moon and just look at it. I even had a dream one time that I went to the moon. And you know when the moon looks just like a piece of mist up there? That’s how it was in my dream. I got there and I said, “Where am I supposed to put my feet?”

Gabriela: Even though Joanne’s only been to the moon in her dreams, something she made, has been there. Something that actually made travelling to the moon possible. Joanne, along with a team of seamstresses in the 1960s, including Jean Wilson, sewed together the space suits worn by the Apollo 11 astronauts.

Jean Wilson: The person that we were making the suit for that astronaut. Who was a human being, his life was in our hands. If we didn’t make that suit right. That’s how important it was.

Gabriela: Jean and Joanna and a whole group of seamstresses were part of a team that included engineers and scientists. Working on something where the stakes were literally life and death. It was the most difficult challenge these women had ever faced, at a time when women were rarely heard or empowered.

Nicholas de Monchaux: It was an era of prejudice and chauvinism and without built-in pragmatism and humility that some of the engineers had, there wouldn’t have been anyone listening as closely to the seamstresses as was necessary.

Gabriela: I’m Gabriela Cowperthwaite and this is Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian. This show is all about the chemistry of teams…and what happens when people are so open to new ideas of working, innovating and expressing themselves together, they end up doing something amazing.

Gabriela: I remember looking up in the night sky when I was very little and thinking the moon was this abstract yellow circle, like something out of a storybook. When I got older, it started seeming so strangely close – like this floating three dimensional object, within our reach. And I remember wondering what it would feel like to bounce around on the lunar surface.

CLIP OF MOON LANDING: “We copy you down, Eagle.” “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you down. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again.”

Gabriela: And while most of us have seen the images and the video of the moon landing, there’s one part of this story I never thought about. Those big, white, puffy outfits the astronauts were wearing. Where did they come from? And who made them? Especially when no one had ever done anything like this before. Well, we have to go back a few years before the landing to find out.

Gabriela: It’s 1966 and a company named ILC, in the town of Dover, Delaware, has won a contract to make space suits for NASA’s Apollo program. Now, you may have never heard of ILC, which stands for the International Latex Corporation. But you probably have heard of their biggest division at the time…

FAKE COMMERCIAL: Gee whiz, ladies, don’t you wish you had a bra that would support you and make you feel shaplier. One that would “cross your heart.”

Gabriela: That’s right, Playtex, the company that made flexible, comfortable bras and girdles was going to use that know-how to make outfits for walking on the moon.

Gabriela: To do that, they needed to build a team, and not just the team you’d expect, scientists and engineers, but a team that included dozens of seamstresses.

Joanne Thompson: I had a four-year-old daughter and my babysitter asked me on my day off if I would go with her up to ILC because they were hiring to make the space suit. And I hadn’t really kept up with the news because I was busy. And so I didn’t really know anything about it.

Gabriela: That’s Joanne Thompson again, the woman who dreams of the moon.

Joanne Thompson: So I took the sewing test too and I passed. So I went back to my dress factory and gave them two weeks notice. And in two weeks I was working on a moon suit.

Gabriela: Meanwhile, Jean Wilson was also a seamstress in Dover and her older sister worked at Playtex.

Jean Wilson: She told me about the job openings they were having, they needed seamstresses to work on the Apollo space suits. So, I applied and when I applied and they found out my credentials and my experience and everything else, they hired me. And at that time I think I was about 18.

Gabriela: Now, it’s important to point out that neither Jean nor Joanne nor any of the women who applied had any experience in aerospace engineering. But they were really good sewers. So when they were asked to  create the finest, straightest and tightest stitches possible, and then to replicate them over and over… well, they aced those tests.

Joanne Thompson: I had been taught to sew when I was really young by my aunt. She was a good seamstress, so I had been sewing, making my own clothes, making clothes for other people, making quilts and doll clothes and lots of different things. So I had a lot of experience sewing.

Jean Wilson: I came from a family of 13 children. I was number 10 and my mother had four daughters and I was one of them. She taught us all how to sew.

Gabriela: But regardless of how good they were, nothing prepared them for the kind of work they were about to do, which started with more tests and training.

Jean Wilson: It was that type of a job where you had to go through training, learning how to read blueprints. The way everything was laid out for the way the suits had to be made and everything else. So, there was a lot involved.

Joanne Thompson: We were given pieces of fabric that we were supposed to cut into certain sizes and stitch them together and make seams on them and copies of the seams that were projected for the suit. Every seam you had to make sure you had the right amount of the stitches for that seam so that it could bear the load. And so we had quite a bit to learn.

Gabriela: Yeah, don’t forget, sewing something that had to withstand the vacuum of space, that was a challenge none of them had ever faced. Bill Ayrey started working at ILC after the moon program as quality manager and company historian.

Bill Ayrey: Any of the ladies that either came from Playtex or let’s say they came from a company making draperies, you were sewing at a pretty fast rate. You were making big rows of stitches in garments or draperies and it wasn’t a real detail oriented job. But when you’re working on a space suit, your machine is running very slowly as you’re guiding these materials under the sewing machine. So it takes a lot of patience. It was very tedious work.

Gabriela: And, of course, the seamstresses were only one part of the larger team. A team that included other folks who were also new to the space industry.

Bill Ayrey: You had to have configuration management experts, quality management, and quality engineers. And this team just grew exponentially because of all the support that NASA required. So this team had to grow up to these 900 people because that’s what NASA expected to have the rigor because these suits were going to sustain life on the moon.

Gabriela: You see, ILC got the contract to make the moon suits because they had the most promising prototype. But their team needed to scale up, massively, to produce something that had to meet the requirements of the mission to the moon. And not just scale up, I mean, just how do you make sure you have the people you need when you’ve never done something like this? Well, that means a long, slow process of bringing in as much diversity of expertise as you can, all the while reconfiguring the team until you have the best set up.

Nicholas de Monchaux: I think NASA’s instinct that a certain kind of teamwork was necessary, was a very, very good instinct of bringing very different kinds of people together in the same organization.

Gabriela: Nicholas de Monchaux is the author of “Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.” He’s studied the different groups that were brought together by NASA to form the moon suit team.

Nicholas de Monchaux: The first were people like George Durney and Len Shepherd. People who had no engineering training, but who are incredibly mechanically adept. And these people called themselves The Hard Knocksers. These guys had only graduated from the school of hard knocks, quote unquote.

Gabriela: So just think about that for a second. Some of the folks who had to build the first suits—to keep astronauts alive on the surface of the moon—had no formal education to do just that. And while Len Shepherd had worked in the industrial section of Playtex, George had been a sewing machine salesman. They weren’t engineers, but they knew about manufacturing.

Nicholas de Monchaux: Then you had a second group of engineers, people like Mel Case, Al Gross and Homer Reihm, who were young engineers. Most of them just went to the University of Delaware and were hired locally. They were very well trained, but they were very open because they were so young.

Gabriela: And then, of course, you had the seamstresses. Some of them had worked with George and Len, but never with aerospace engineers. Who had never worked with garment makers.

Nicholas de Monchaux: The scenes that have been described to me from that period, were three people sitting around a sewing machine, one of them would be a seamstress, one of them would be an engineer. And then another one of them would be one of these Hard Knockser engineers. And the seamstress would be explaining what the fabric could do. The other engineer might be explaining what the stainless steel fitting could do. And then the more trained engineer could be thinking of how such a thing could be conceived of to meet tolerances or production processes.

Gabriela: So instead of putting the seamstresses, the technicians and the engineers in different silos, there would be these moments when experts from all three would come together. Bringing their different perspectives to bear on a super complex problem. This is, of course, a powerful team superpower which I’ll call, “Multipart Harmony.” Now picture, in that scene you just heard about, 18 year old Jean Wilson.

Jean Wilson: I moved up in a position where I was a lead sewer. So, I was like a supervisor over several other women. And then also the color of my skin, I am an African American and at that time I was known and labeled as the colored girl.

Gabriela: This is one of the challenging things that happened in this story, that made this story possible. Even in a society crippled with racism, chauvinism, and ageism, the team and mission still moved forward. To help put a man on the moon.

Gabriela: To understand just how unique this was, especially having women in a highly technical workspace, providing feedback and input, we have to remember what things were like in 1960s America. Here’s an excerpt from a short film about a new space age ceramic at the time called “Pyroceram:

1960 Pyroceram movie: Three out of four new household products just don’t sell. Or to put it another way, the women of American won’t buy because they aren’t what women want. How can industry be sure that what it makes are the things that people really want? It starts with men, designers, engineers, production men. First they determine what things can be made better with Pyroceram…Oh, I like that one…

Gabriela: That’s, obviously, about the role of women in American society at the time. Add to that an African-American woman? Remember, this is only ten years after Rosa Parks made her stand—by sitting down—on a Montgomery bus. This is taking “Multipart Harmony” to another level. Not just diversity in expertise, but diversity in background and perspective.

Gabriela: Nicholas paints a picture of what this looked like, including one of the lead seamstresses, Roberta Pilkington.

Nicholas de Monchaux:

It was Len Shepherd, and Roberta Pilkington, sitting in a pool of light, over a sewing machine, going back and forth, and back and forth with a single part, and Shepherd asking repeatedly, “Well, can it be done this way, or can it be done this way?” And Roberta, or Bert, as everyone called her, pushing back and saying, “Fabric can’t do that. Fabric can’t do that. Fabric can do this.”

Gabriela: Homer Reihm, one of the original engineers on the program that Nicholas mentioned earlier, remembers one of these moments. He was called to the floor by quality inspector Madeline Ivory who had been working with the seamstresses. She told him a stitch the engineers wanted just wasn’t working.

Homer Reihm:

And I would go, “Well what’s the matter with it, Madeline?” “Well, if you put a little stress on it the seam will rake. It’s not the right kind of seam. It ought to be a turned and overlapped seam.”

Gabriela: This, of course, is one of the advantages of having such a diverse team: access to expertise the engineers didn’t have, didn’t even know they needed. As in the scene you just heard about, the seamstresses knew, from experience, how a certain type of stitch or seam would hold up under stress. That knowledge would get integrated into how a part was designed, so that when it all came together, strength and integrity weren’t compromised. Bill thinks, though, that this relationship between the engineers and the seamstresses might have been a bit rocky at times.

Bill Ayrey: Back then the folks like George Durney, some of the engineers were pretty headstrong, pretty egotistical type people, that it was their way…if it were George Durney and he’s going to go talk to these ladies about getting a seam sewn a certain way, they kind of expected that. But yet there might’ve been pushback back from the seamstresses because perhaps they couldn’t make it that way. And so there had to be a trade off. But there was probably a little irritation in between.

Gabriela: Jean, though, remembers a balanced give and take.

Jean Wilson: I can honestly say every person that I worked with on this, especially the engineers, none of them would talk down to us or act like, oh, well, we’re just seamstresses. We’re just sewers or whatever. They would not have their jobs that if they didn’t have someone like the women that help them with the sewing and everything because they didn’t know how to sew. There was never, it was never a disagreement, like well, the suit needs to be made this way. And then that would be what the seamstress would say. And then the engineers or designers would say something else and then they just go separate ways. It didn’t work that way.

Gabriela: As Nicholas points out, this “Multipart Harmony” was a remarkable working relationship because of when we’re talking about.

Nicholas de Monchaux: This was the 1960s, this was not a moment where women participated equally in administrative and organizational teams with men. If we could even say that today. And they clearly understood that they had to figure out also how to get their expertise into the process. And so, they were managing too, even if they were managing from below.

Gabriela: When Nicholas thinks back to those suits, being assembled, layer by layer, inside of each other like Russian Dolls, he sees a bigger metaphor at play.

Nicholas de Monchaux: The objects themselves that they were making were very much hybrid, physical objects. Combining soft and hard materials, screws and stitches, and lots of different ways of assembling things all in one object. So you can really even read the teamwork in the object itself.

Gabriela: That is, the seamstresses, the technicians, the engineers.

Nicholas de Monchaux: It was really an organizational victory, as much as a physical victory, how to create the organization and the systems that could allow this very different kind of manufacturing and making process to exist within this ocean of paperwork which were a necessary part of the larger organizational process. But, which didn’t suit in every sense, the making of space suits.

Gabriela: And when it comes to actually making those space suits, the process went something like this: It started with the astronauts themselves being carefully measured. Then, patterns for all the different sections of the suits were created and cut out of the various fabrics by engineers. That’s when it was all passed over to the seamstresses to sew together. Then each section would be x rayed to look for any stray needles or pin pricks. The suits would then be tested by the astronauts, checking fit and functionality. If the suit passed all these levels, the work wasn’t over yet. Each suit needed to be copied a few times over, for stress tests and as backups.

Gabriela: What they were making is often called a moon suit but really, it’s like a self-contained space ship, because it will be the only thing protecting the astronauts. It has to shield them from the cold and the elements. It has to regulate their temperature. It has to provide air to breath. And, on top of everything else, it needs to be flexible, to allow for free and easy movement, as Jean says.

Jean Wilson: When you put it on and it’s holding you but at the same time you can move, well, that’s what was important for the astronauts, for their suits, for them to be able to maneuver around, to bend and move and pick up and squat and turn and do what they had to do.

Gabriela: Joanne gives us a detailed look at a piece of the suit she worked on, the gloves. Which, it turns out, was one of the hardest parts to build. They have to be so flexible, with so many curves and contours, and yet be as protective and functional as any other part of the suit.

Joanne Thompson: And so these molds, molds that they made right off the astronauts’ hands, were used for making what the glove, the rubber glove part was called the bladder, because it held air. It had a piece of coated fabric on the palm side and a piece of just nylon on the back side and the webbing went around the back of the hand, and had Velcro on it, where the astronauts could tighten it up on his palm. And that way when the glove was inflated. He was able to flex his fingers and thumb and hold something in his hand.

Gabriela: It’s amazing to remember that at that time, these folks were pioneers. No one had ever done this before. There was no roadmap, no previous generation of moon suit to base your work on. But as the team gets deeper and deeper into the production process, they never lose sight of what this was all about: the astronauts. Nichoals points to a simple tactic that ensures they remain focused on the right priorities.

Nicholas de Monchaux: They put a picture of each astronaut who was going to wear the suit, on top of the suit as it was stored and in the production process. So you could remember that this piece of clothing was going to keep someone alive, a quarter million miles away from the earth.

Gabriela: In other words, following procedure perfectly was not the mark of a job well done. Success was ensuring that every astronaut could survive on the moon. That was priority number one. I call this superpower “Primary Focus.”

Gabriela: And even better than the astronauts’ photos above each moonsuit for maintaining “Primary Focus” was actually meeting them. Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin made numerous trips to be fitted, as Jean remembers.

Jean Wilson: They were like little kids at Christmas time. They were this excited and happy because they wanted to be astronauts. They became astronauts and then to actually be to the point of putting on a suit they were going to be wearing in space and it fit so nice and feel good. They were excited and happy. It’s like a bride, a young lady getting ready to get married and she has to be fitted for a wedding gown. It’s the same thing.

Gabriela: Yeah, pretty much the same thing. Bill points out that when the astronauts visited, they did more than just get fitted.

Bill Ayrey: They tried to allow enough time in their schedule to go see the ladies down in the floor where the sewing was being done because of course it was in their interest to let them see the face of the person that’s going to be wearing the suit that they’ve made. And to thank them for what they did because they knew that they put a lot of hours and a lot of work into these suits.

Gabriela: Engineer Homer Reihm explains how it would happen.

Homer Reihm: We would have an all-hands assembly down in the production area which was the biggest room in the plant, and all the production people and all the employees and the crewmen would come in there and speak to them and give them a pep talk and tell them how important everything they were doing was to this program and to their wellbeing and to basically their life depended on the work being done by ILC, and boy that was really a morale builder for all the people.

Gabriela: And in case we lose sight of the bigger picture, just why were they rushing to the moon? Homer Reihm reminds us of the moment in September, 1962 that started it all.

Homer Reihm: President Kennedy made that speech where he committed the United States to beat the Russians to the moon in a decade, and his speech became the rallying cry for everybody.

Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium:
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.

Jean Wilson: Working as a group, one had the help the other, one had to work along with the other. So it was like we were all linked, our arms and hands were grasping hands and linking our arms together all as a big chain. And it all worked and came together. And as a team I couldn’t ask for a better team, than the team we had that put the suits together. It meant a lot.

Gabriela: Homer, from the point of view of the engineers, feels the same way.

Homer Reihm: Everybody that worked on the project were pulling together. Everybody was wanting the task to be done right and thorough and successful, and if it didn’t happen, there was no finger pointing. From the stitcher, the inspector, the pattern makers. Everybody was dedicated on realizing that this suit had to be the best it could be. It would go to the moon.

Gabriela: Despite the team spirit and the years of careful, meticulous work and testing, there is one major worry at this late stage of the project, points out engineer Homer Reihm.

Homer Reihm: We couldn’t test the suit to the lunar environment exactly simultaneously because there was no way to do that. There was no lunar simulator.

Gabriela: The team had tested the suits in every way they could, subjecting the fabrics to simulations of solar wind and moon dust, bouncing the suits around in high Gs on airplanes, even putting the suits in vacuum chambers. But it’s possible that the data NASA had about conditions on the moon wasn’t quite right. Or there was some other surprise waiting for them up there. No one will know until they step onto the moon. By then, of course, it will be too late to fix anything.

Homer Reihm: Apollo 11, unfortunately, became the systems test of the spacesuit.

Gabriela: Typically, in the town of Dover, Delaware, the middle of the night is silent and dark. But in the early hours of July 21, 1969, hazy blue lights flicker in living rooms across the county, as they do around the world.

Joanne Thompson: My four-year-old daughter was there, I woke her up and we watched on the TV. I just had a little black and white one, and so we didn’t have very good reception, but we did see it. And I told her, I said, “I’m going to have you watch this because there’s history being made.”

Jean Wilson: And I was at home watching on television like everyone else was like millions and millions of other people were doing. And when I saw Neil Armstrong that when he landed on the moon and he came out and was on the moon itself, it was a just unbelievable.

Joanne Thompson: When I saw him on the moon, it was hard for me to put together the thought that those little parts I worked on, on the production floor, are now on the moon. And it was just something that gave you goosebumps.

Jean Wilson: And I can remember yelling and screaming at the television. Of course they couldn’t hear me on the television, but I was the fact, I made that suit, I made that suit that’s all I could say. I made that suit, I can’t believe I made that suit and it was just a good feeling.

Gabriela: But the women weren’t just feeling excited.

Joanne Thompson: I was afraid when they were doing the different things with their hands and I was hoping there would be no problem. That there was no failure in the glove part, because that would’ve really been hard to accept that maybe something I did was not holding up and it was the cause of the whole program failing, and maybe a man even possibly losing his life up there.

Gabriela: Homer Reihm felt the same way.

Homer Reihm: I was not relaxed because I wanted to see that the systems test had no surprises in it. As the mission went on and things were working just exactly as planned and I could see that we had everything under control, I started to loosen up a little bit.

Gabriela: But just when Homer is starting to relax, Buzz Aldrin does something that gets his heart rate up again.

Homer Reihm: And there Buzz goes, “Oh, I thought I saw some,” he used a scientific geophysical name for some rock, and he goes bolting off, off camera to look at this rock, and I’m thinking, “Get that silly sucker back up the ladder. The mission is a success. Why should we mess with success?”

Gabriela: It was a success, of course, the astronauts all made it home, safe and sound. As did the ten other astronauts who used the ILC moonsuits to walk on the moon over the next three years.

Gabriela: It’s been over fifty years since the moon landing but ILC is still around, still making suits for NASA. In fact, their recent spacesuits and prototypes influenced the xEMU, a spacesuit debuted late last year that will be worn by the first woman on the moon, hopefully in a few years. Janet Ferl is a design engineering manager at ILC Dover. She’s worked with many of those folks who built the first moon suits, including Joanne and Jean.

Janet Ferl: I learned from them how to make sewing work for life-critical applications. And that knowledge helped us design and make the enhancements to the suit that went on to become the suit that’s used today.

Gabriela: Janet didn’t only learn about making moon suits from that original team.

Janet Ferl: One of the other things I learned from the Apollo astronauts and seamstresses was really the dedication to the job and to the mission. Because we are making life-critical spacesuit components, there’s just a pride in what we do, and a sense of responsibility in what we’re producing and what we’re approving for use.

Gabriela: And there’s one last thought I want to leave you with. Picture the moon landing. Picture Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin standing and walking on the moon. Only thing is, we’re not actually seeing Armstrong and Aldrin. We’re seeing the suits. In every image we’ve ever seen of the moon, we’re seeing the work of Jean and Roberta and Joanne and so many others.

Joanne Thompson: That a bunch of women can accomplish something so important. We were able to put together and make what men dreamed up. Then we put it together. There were some women who dedicated day after day, and left their families and went to work just as hard as the men did. And look what we produced. We made it possible for the man to go on the moon.

Gabriela: The ILC Dover team used key strategies like harnessing divergent expertise and never losing sight of their goal, to build those first moon suits. You can find out more about those and lots of other superpowers at atlassian dot com slash Teamistry. Please let us know what you think of the show, you can give us a rating in your podcast app or better yet, leave us a review. We read each and every one. And the “we” by the way, the team that brings you Teamistry, is writer and producer Pedro Mendes, story producer and researcher Rehmatullah Sheik, Executive Producer Karen Burgess, sound designers Shawn Cole and Christian Prohom. From Atlassian, we have Christine Dela Rosa, John Ville, Jamey Austin and Megan Rowe.

Gabriela: Thanks for listening to Teamistry, an original podcast from Atlassian.