By Nicola Jones of Nature magazine

The spacesuits worn by the first astronauts are falling apart from old age. Conservators have a plan to give them a longer life, but first they have to pack them up into coffins.

Conservator Lisa Young and curator Cathy Lewis of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC are overseeing the suits' move from their current home in the aptly named town of Suitland, Maryland, to a newer and better facility. The coffins were Young's creative solution to the problem of keeping the collection of some 270 suits flat and unharmed on the journey.

"We have come up with a retrofitted casket from the airline industry," says Young. "We lined it to make sure it would be waterproof. And we have seatbelts in there so the suits don't move," she says.

The caskets will be packed into climate-controlled boxes and shipped an hour down the road to their new home--the museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia--where visitors will be able to watch through glass as conservators study the precious cargo.

The care and planning that Young and her colleagues are putting into the move is testament to the suits' fragility and value. "These are national treasures," says Lewis. "There's evidence in the suits that needs to be preserved."

Dusty treasure

Examination of suits from the 1969-1972 Apollo Moon landings, for example, showed that lunar dust surprisingly had stuck even to the stainless-steel fabric protecting the astronaut's gloves, and had begun to cut through some of the fibers. Chemists are also keen to study the ageing of the polymers and rubbers used, to help improve materials for spacesuits that will, in future, be needed for much longer trips. Early rubber seals only had a shelf-life of 6 months.

Not all the suits were well treated in the past. Some were displayed under bright lights or left in humid rooms, leading to fungal growth, metal corrosion and degraded plastics. In the early 2000s, when Young and her mother-in-law Amanda Young worked together studying the suits' conservation, they discovered large amounts of chlorine in the suits from the 1965-1966 Gemini missions. It wasn't from the swimming pools used in training, as only the test suits went into the pool; it was from the astronauts' sweat.

"Gene's spacewalk was most famous for this. He came closest to death from his exertions," says Lewis. Pilot Eugene (Gene) Cernan reportedly lost 5-6 kilograms in perspiration. The cooler suits developed in later years led to a different conservation problem: the PVC cooling tubes have been leaching acidic plasticizer that leaves a brick-red stain.

Those plastic tubes have been removed and are now stored in a separate, closed cabinet. Some suits have been dry-cleaned. Fungal growths can be flash-frozen to stop their progression, but, says Young, "mostly we try to vacuum them off". Her team is now researching a corrosion inhibitor, used on aeroplanes, to paint on aluminum parts. But the key, she says, is to keep the suits in a dim, dry environment, at about 18 °C--cool enough to prevent mould, but not so cold that the rubber gets brittle.

The old storage facility was one warehouse among many that house government archival material, says Lewis. "You know that image of the government warehouses at the end of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark? That's what Suitland really is," she says. (The 'suit' in the town's name, she says, is just a coincidence.) That facility wasn't big enough to keep everything--including about 1,200 parts such as spare spacesuit gloves and pipes, memorabilia, trophies and artwork--under climate-controlled conditions.

The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center--where the shuttle Enterprise is already and Discovery will be soon--has room for everything under one climate-controlled roof, along with state-of-the-art lab facilities for the museum's two staff conservators and visiting scientists. The move of the museum's collections has started already; the suits will be on their way in late summer or early autumn.

Lewis estimates that the suits would have only about 20 years left in them if it weren't for their conservation work; with the right conditions and interventions, they should now last another 50 years. To up those numbers, Young says, they are always aiming to pick up tricks and supplies from other fields.

"People don't really make materials for conservators because there aren't really that many of us around, so we have to adapt from industry," she says. "We try to think outside the box."

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on June 10, 2011.