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Smithsonian Holds Out Virtual Tin Cup for Spacesuit Restoration

Neil Armstrong Neil Armstrong NASA

You might think a suit designed to be worn on the surface of the moon would be highly durable. But that’s not the case. Spacesuits are actually fragile and subject to decay, which is why those from the early days of the space program have spent much of their time in recent years out of the public eye, sitting in storage facilities awaiting expensive restoration before they can be displayed.

Now the Smithsonian Institution has gone hat in hand to the public in an effort to fund a project to restore iconic spacewear. On July 20, the museum launched a Kickstarter campaign called Reboot the Suit to refurbish the suit worn by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

The campaign reached its goal within a few days. So the Smithsonian upped the ante, seeking another $200,000 to restore the suit worn by Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space. That effort ends Wednesday, and as of late Tuesday morning, it too had reached its goal.

You might ask why an organization that gets an annual appropriation from Congress is extending a tin cup to the public to fund ongoing efforts central to its mission.

“Good question!” Smithsonian officials say on the Kickstarter page for the campaign. “Federal appropriations provide the foundation of the Smithsonian's operating budget and support core functions, such as building operations and maintenance, research, and safeguarding the collections. Projects like Reboot the Suit aren’t covered by our federal appropriations, which means we can only undertake them if we can fund them some other way.”

With the Kickstarter funding in hand, Armstrong’s suit is slated to be restored and displayed by 2019, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. The following year, it will become part of a bigger exhibition, Destination Moon, covering the history of the lunar mission.

Contributors to the online fundraising effort are eligible to receive posters, decals, t-shirts and other items based on the level of their donations. Higher-level contributors will get a 3D-printed version of one of the gloves Armstrong wore.

With the Kickstarter effort, NASA seems to be determined to up its game when it comes to preserving space artifacts. Armstrong’s suit, Smithsonian.com reports, has “stains of an unknown origin” from its original display, and someone took it upon themselves to hand-stitch repairs to the knee and other areas of the suit. At one point, the suit was taken to a commercial dry cleaner.

Clearly, the uniform of the most famous civilian federal employee ever deserves better.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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