Joseph Schmitt: spacesuit designer and technician

Joseph Schmitt


Joseph Schmitt, the astronaut spacesuit technician who suited up NASA’s astronauts in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s died on 25 September 2017 in Texas at the age of 101.

Joseph William Schmitt (1916-2017) was born in O’Fallon, Illinois. His father, Benjamin Schmitt, died three months after Joseph’s birth. A city marshal, Benjamin was shot and killed on duty. His mother, Apollonia Berkel, raised him and his siblings with the help of extended family.

Joseph shined shoes and cleaned spittoons in his brother-in-law’s barbershop to contribute to the household earnings.

After high school, Joseph joined the Army Air Corps and studied aircraft engines, leaving in 1939, when he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a forerunner of NASA. In 1939, he married Elizabeth Ann Rayfield in 1939, and they had two children, Joseph Michael and Norma Jean Spencer. His wife died in 2008.

In 1947, he worked on the 1947 flight in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Schmitt then transitioned to NASA’s Space Task Group in preparation for spaceflights.

He was an equipment specialist, a suit technician, which required him to design and dress the astronauts, accompany them to the spacecraft, strap them in, and connect the air vents and other devices that monitor their health and enable them to communicate during flight.

For example, Schmitt suited up astronaut Alan Shepard for America’s first spaceflight in May 1961, strapping him into the Freedom 7 capsule. He suited up astronaut John Glenn for the 1962 flight in which Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. He preparted astronauts for the Apollo 11, the first lunar landing – suiting up Neil Armstrong – and afterwards on other Apollo missions. He retired in 1983.

Said to be a perfectionist, working behind the scenes, he would spend long hours in the testing laboratory with the astronauts, getting them accustomed to their suits before the flight.

Three hours before lift-off, Schmitt had to hook the astronauts to portable oxygen ventilators to reduce the nitrogen in their blood. Without that, they would get the bends on re-entry. Because the ventilators lasted only half an hour, he would carry spares to the launch pad, walking behind the smiling, waving astronauts with his head down so that he wasn’t photographed.

For suiting-up, he worked with a checklist. He checked for fatal air-leaks, especially around the zippers, and that carry-on items, such as pens and snacks, were placed in the right pockets. He itemised for stowage the things astronauts liked to take with them, such as wedding rings. Communication lines were connected, and over-gloves, boots and five-pound helmets locked on.

Schmitt was the last person that the astronauts had physical contact with before their flight. In NASA’s oral history, Schmitt says, ‘Before getting out of the spacecraft, I always made a quick check of everyone’s equipment, asking them if everything was okay and wish them good luck.’

There are only a few photographs of Schmitt at work because he kept out of the limelight, as the press captured historic moments in spaceflights. There was the exception when he was on the television game-show ‘What’s My Line?’ in May 1963 in which a celebrity panel had to guess what he did for a living. They failed to guess his role, although they did guess correctly that he had something to do with the spaceflights.

For the first lunar landing in July 1969, Schmitt worked on the suits for Neil Armstrong, and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, who were the first and second men on the moon. Michael Collins stayed on board Command Module Columbia while Armstrong and Aldrin took Lunar Module Eagle to the surface of the moon.

Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s spacesuits had to cater for the moon walk. After the cotton longjohns underwear, the astronauts’ spacesuits, costing $100,000 each, had 28 layers of ultraviolet radiation resistant material (coated with Kapton and Teflon) that could withstand a 500-degree temperature range (from minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit to 310 degrees Fahrenheit), while ensuring that the astronauts could still move their arms and legs. Schmitt also designed the urine extractor device.

When I was in Washington DC in 2013, I visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the exhibition “Suited for Space” which displayed the history and development of the spacesuit, and accessories, worn by astronauts from the Freedom 7 Suit of 1961 to the 1968 Apollo Suit and Skylab 3 Suit of 1973.

The first helmets were extremely restrictive. Astronauts could barely move their heads. And they certainly couldn’t see their feet. Now helmets enable astronauts to see from side to side. A feed port on the side of a helmet has valves for emergency food or water intake, and channels at the back are for air flow. Gloves developed over time to include rubber and neoprene fingertips to protect the astronauts’ hands, but also enable them to feel objects.

Over time spacesuits allowed greater arm movement and leg movement, as well as technical advances and lots of pockets to keep specimens collected the moon from floating in space. Until recently, NASA could see inside space clothing only by peering through the neck or the wrist with a flashlight. At best, NASA could only guess at the state of a suit’s interior. X-rays, such as the one photographed of Alan Shepard’s Apollo 14 suit, make it possible to examine the interior construction to see its wear-and-tear and effects of space travel.

As a suit technician, Schmitt considered himself a low man on the job. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.


Astronaut shoes

Astronaut helmet

Astronaut gloves

Joseph Schmitt


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