And Lift Off… Delaware’s Launch into Space Program History

For some of us, a trip to the beach might be the only exciting prospect on the horizon for a hot July day.  For others (myself included), it was watching the final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on July 8th.  Unlike the lucky folks actually present on the ground  in Florida, I sat glued to my home computer screen here in Delaware, waiting with bated breath to see if the weather would cooperate and allow the launch to go off as planned.  I watched the pre-flight checks and countdown clock with fascination, and allowed myself a small cheer as the last shuttle blasted off on its twelve-day mission to the International Space Station as scheduled.  As the on-board camera images began to break up when the shuttle left the earth’s atmosphere, I thought about the history of the U.S. Space Program and how far we’ve come (among other existential things) and was suddenly reminded of Delaware’s unique and special place in this history.  So, how many of us are aware that one of the companies at the forefront of space suite design, ILC Dover, is located right here in Delaware, and that our very own DuPont Company manufactured most of the materials used to make space suits?

Based today in Frederica, ILC Dover is an engineering and design firm that has been a major part of the Space Program since its early days.  Although space suits are only one facet of the company’s business, it is undoubtedly what they are most well known for.  In fact, two of the Mission Specialists on the crew of Atlantis will be wearing suits manufactured by ILC Dover for a spacewalk that is part of this mission.  ILC Dover began in 1932 as a branch of the International Latex Corporation (later known as Playtex – yes, as in ladies’ undergarments!)  In 1947, the company split into four divisions, one of which became ILC Dover. 

In 1965, ILC won its first contract to produce space suits for the Apollo Program with an innovative design for a space suit that protected astronauts while remaining flexible and easy to move around in. ILC continued to refine its space suit designs and outfitted every U.S. astronaut in the Apollo Program, including those that did the first moonwalk. The suits for the Apollo missions differed from their predecessors on the Mercury and Gemini programs because they not only had to protect the astronauts from the extreme environment of space, these suits also had to allow them to walk freely on the lunar surface and collect scientific samples.  Previous space suits did not allow the astronauts to venture outside the lander or tethered them to it via a breathing hose.

ILC used synthetic materials developed by the DuPont Company, such as nomex, teflon, kapton, nylon, and lycra, to make the suits for the Apollo Program.  At the time, DuPont was the only company that offered a wide range of materials that could perform in extreme conditions. The Delaware Historical Society has a DuPont Company relic from this era that shows a layered cross-section of the moonwalk suit and the various materials that went into making it. This fascinating object is currently on display in our “Distinctively Delaware” exhibit.  Visitors can also see a full-sized replica of the space suit used on the Apollo missions that was donated by ILC Dover.

ILC went on to design space suits for many different NASA programs, including SkyLab in the 1970s, the Space Shuttle Program, and the International Space Station.  ILC suits have also been worn by the astronauts who repaired the Hubble telescope, giving us our first amazing glimpses into the wonders of our wider universe. Although this mission will bring the Space Shuttle Program to a close, hopefully this will not mean an end to space exploration. Even today, DuPont continues to develop new materials and ILC Dover is at the forefront of designing space suits and equipment that will make further space exploration possible.  So, maybe me watching the last shuttle launch from Delaware was fitting after all!  On behalf of the Delaware Historical Society, I wish the crew of Atlantis a productive mission and safe return.


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