For MoDiP’s latest collaborative exhibition with TheGallery, we thought it would be interesting to celebrate the theme of space given that 2021 marks both the 30th anniversary of the first ever British person to enter space and the 5th anniversary of the first ever British spacewalk. We started organising objects and writing text last October with the intention of a January launch (excuse the pun), but Covid-19 lockdown delays meant that the exhibition didn’t actually go up until March. It is currently on display in the Northwest Gallery Entrance of the North Building at AUB, running until 18/06/21.
Plastics have played a key role in the advancement of space exploration. For example, the spacesuits worn for the 1960s Apollo moon landings were comprised of some 21 different synthetic materials in various complex layers. They included a nylon tricot inner suit, a polycarbonate helmet, PVC tubing as well as silicone coatings on the gloves, Spandex, Dacron, Neoprene, Kevlar, Nomex, Mylar…..
But collecting such plastics is not easy. Firstly, the technology is very expensive to buy: the Science Museum was only able to acquire Helen Sharman’s spacesuit in 2006 with the assistance of a £35,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Secondly, availability is limited: having invested heavily in the development of their spacesuits, organisations like NASA usually want to keep hold of them and maintain them for reuse. Thirdly, all of these plastics come with significant collections care issues: Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit was only recently put back on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum after 13 years’ conservation work, made possible with a campaign that raised more than $500,000.
Image ref: The Apollo extravehicular mobility unit worn by Neil Armstrong.
Image credit: https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/neil-armstrongs-apollo-11-spacesuit
So, if this technology is beyond MoDiP’s reach, how can we actually collect on the theme of space? The objects we included in our collaborative exhibition were domestic in nature and evoked the subject, suggesting how the museum’s objects can be used as a source of inspiration. But we do have space-related objects, those that use technology that was specifically designed for this most hostile of environments but which has now filtered down into the everyday.
Officially termed spinoff, examples of plastics products in the collection that have derived from NASA technology include a memory foam pillow (AIBDC : 006225 - memory foam was developed for cushioning aircraft seats), a space blanket (AIBDC : 008554 - used for thermal control on the exterior surfaces of spacecraft), a swimsuit (not yet catalogued - NASA tested the design and materials for surface friction drag) and a pair of socks (AIBDC : 005879 – containing phase change technology that assists astronauts in keeping comfortable and cool).
Image ref: MoDiP objects that contain technology developed by NASA.
Image credit: MoDiP
Since 1976, NASA has published over 2,000 other spinoffs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity. MoDiP will keep collecting in this area as new commercial innovations become available but in the meantime, if anyone has a spacesuit they would like to donate, please let us know!