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Women who made the suits that put man on the moon
October 27th, 2011
09:41 PM ET

From Bras to Spacesuits: The Untold Story of Apollo 11

July 16, 1969. The world waited with bated breath as three men in a rocket hurtled skyward, bound for the moon.

Half a billion people tuned in to watch the grainy black and white images of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong step out of the Eagle and onto the lunar surface.

Armstrong's first step was a triumph in a complex operation that marked a new era for mankind.

A group of seamstresses in a small town called Frederica in the state of Delaware was among those watching that moment on the moon. Their role in the American space story is unrivaled.

These unassuming women, who started off their careers stitching bras and girdles, had in fact sewn the spacesuits - 21 layers of material all together.

"I had something to do that was great. I did something great in my lifetime. I built the suit that went to the moon," 75-year-old Bert Pilkenton told CNN.

For 42 years, Pilkenton, along with some 80 other young women, individually tailored spacesuits for International Latex Corporation (ILC)Dover, which had been part of the Playtex group in the 1960s. Their intimate knowledge of the human body and skills with synthetic materials and body-hugging shapes meant they triumphed over the hard amour-like spacesuits designed by military contractors and favored by NASA's engineers.

"Lower arm, upper arm, torso, setting zippers, the convolutes. I had a part in all of it. Wherever they needed help. We just helped each other," said Ruth Ratledge who still works at ILC Dover as a seamstress, aged 77, having given up on retirement.

At times, the girls needed to blind stitch the suits, feeling underneath to get the parts to come together, sometimes within a 64th of an inch.

For the astronauts, it was a matter of life or death. Without oxygen and the protective suit, Aldrin and Armstrong would have perished on the moon in less than 30 seconds.

As a result, sewing pins were deliberately rationed. If the spacesuits were X-rayed and had stray pins left in them where the tailors had pinned the material together, they had to start all over again.

For Ellie Foraker, who began her career with Playtex in 1952 sewing baby pants, finding pins in the suits became too much to bear one day when she realized one particular seamstress had a left a pin in the suit.

She said, "I showed her the pin and I said, "You see this? It just came out of that garment that you sewed. So I'm gonna show you what a pin will do" and I stuck her in the butt. And I said, "Do you think you will remember the next time you leave a straight pin in something?" She said, "Yes ma'am"."

Once the astronauts landed safely back on planet earth, the suits went to the Smithsonian National Air andSpaceMuseuminWashingtonwhere they remain today as a testament to the women behind the suits that put man on the moon.

Bert Pilkenton laughed as she let on a secret - "When we built the Apollo suit - the one that is in the Smithsonian Institute - some of us girls names are inside that suit."


Filed under: backstory • Science and Technology • The Revealer • U.S.