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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.
soundoff (113 Responses)
  1. Arthur

    Great to see that these american womens gave their everything to make a suit for "their" boys to go to the moon.....

    Sad to see that it is now all irrelevant as it would all go to China

    October 28, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      Who made the space suits for the shuttle astronauts? Does the tag on their suits say "Made in China"?

      October 29, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ahmed

      I do love the manner in which you have rfmaed this particular situation and it does indeed provide me personally a lot of fodder for thought. However, from everything that I have personally seen, I simply trust when the remarks pack on that individuals stay on issue and don't get started on a soap box of some other news of the day. All the same, thank you for this superb point and even though I can not really concur with the idea in totality, I respect the point of view.

      March 26, 2012 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
      • rob welch

        Ahmed. Thank you and your comment and will be takin into consideration. God bless

        March 26, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Kyle H. Davis

    There were a lot of people, taking a lot of pride in working for the project. My grandmother worked on the rope which held the parachutes for the capsule.

    October 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Guer

    She gave up on retirement? That's sad. She deserves to be able to retire at 77.

    October 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • J

      It seems like she just enjoyed working more than sitting around doing nothing. Props to her for continuing to be a productive member of society instead of some worthless couch potato.

      October 28, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Report abuse |
      • J. Major

        I can't believe you'd call a 77-year-old retiree from the garment industry a worthless couch potato. That's pretty callous.

        October 29, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      Yes, she deserves to retire just as I do! However, Wall Street destroyed those dreams for us (several times now)!
      SSI? It doesn't even pay enough for my housing!
      Of course, the millionaires on Wall Street just laugh at us. "why were you so stupid to trust us with your 401K?"
      Now, we have a candidate for the presidency telling us "If you're not rich, it's your own fault!" "Vote for me!"

      October 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Junior

      With everything which arppaes to be building within this specific subject material, many of your opinions are relatively exciting. Nevertheless, I beg your pardon, because I do not give credence to your whole plan, all be it exhilarating none the less. It would seem to me that your opinions are generally not entirely rationalized and in fact you are yourself not even entirely convinced of the point. In any case I did appreciate reading it.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:13 am | Report abuse |
      • rob welch

        Junior, Thank you so much for your response. This is what makes our Great Nation so Great! You and I can disagree about the issue but you did not start off by calling names or saying things about my personal that is not true, Thanks again and God Bless

        March 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Babak from LA

    Reminds me of a time when we had good paying jobs here.

    October 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • angrynotmad7

      Lay it on...................YOUR SO RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      October 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • My Name is "Bubba"

      No S–t, huh? I think they exported those jobs to China now... maybe India.

      October 29, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
      • Franklin

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        March 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
      • Muazzez

        I must show my affection for your sendniks giving support to individuals who really want guidance on this one question. Your personal dedication to passing the message up and down was incredibly advantageous and have constantly helped men and women like me to arrive at their pursuits. Your amazing interesting report means a great deal to me and still more to my peers. Regards; from each one of us.

        March 26, 2012 at 6:44 am | Report abuse |
        • rob welch

          Thanks Bubba. The whole thing about this issue is that you and I are still aloud to write and speak our minds. We still have the Freedom of Speech and as far as them landing on the moon?? There are just to many inconsistency's. God Bless America!!

          March 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
      • World Traveler

        Most garment companies have exported many of their jobs to Indonesia and Malyasia too. I see the names daily in Indonesian produced goods.

        August 26, 2012 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      Yes, we used to have good paying jobs (for men). No woman working everyday on a sewing machine was ever paid well! Did these seamstresses ever get paid a "bonus" for doing a great job? Did they get to make the space suits for our shuttle astronauts? I would not be surprised to see a tag on current space suits that says "made in China"!
      Even our iconic jeans maker, Levy, gave up making jeans in the USA! Of course, the Levy factories here where nothing better than "sweat shops" until they closed them down!

      October 29, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Naoko

      Social networks may be hanvig trouble monetizing, but its not because their users are scared of advertising, according to a new Razorfish study released. The survey found that over three-quarters of respondents didn't mind seeing ads when using their social network of choice. jillcatrina

      August 28, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Tushemerirwe

      I have a good one for you gov, why was my best friend did not get her food smatps and cash for grandchild.she is with no food and money to pay her bills Whats up with this. she was at the welfare office the other day.but they sent her home with nothing .also the mother of these kids left them with the grandmother.she now faces with no christmas tree or even a nice dinner for the kids.the kids don't have any clothes at all not even toys for christmas and the grandmother don't have money$$$$.and now with no car i think this is not fair to her or the kids where is the love the predents or the the gov have man where is the love of god in this calif.PLEASE HELP HER IN ANY WAY she lives at REDACTED

      August 30, 2012 at 6:03 am | Report abuse |
  5. iBod

    Man would not have gone to the Moon without these suits.

    These women deserve my sincerest admiration of their work that made such an endeavor possible.

    October 28, 2011 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • roland

      do you believe that man has ever been to the moon? sheesh!

      October 31, 2011 at 4:43 am | Report abuse |
  6. angrynotmad7

    Wow.........women also played a part in WW11 aslo.......but, I needed to mention the SINGER SEWING MACHINE. I still have mine and it was made in the good ole USA.............THE WAY WE HAD PRIDE IN THIS COUNTRY AND THE WAY IT SHOULD BE TODAY. ALSO, I WONDER IF THOSE LADIES GOT PAID MIN WAGE:)?

    October 28, 2011 at 8:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. angrynotmad7

    I believe in getting the whole picture...............because it goes with the rest of the story:)

    October 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexandra

      ArmaninNa mez ognec haskanal bolor rbnutyunner@ internetum ashxatelis. Internetum haytni darnalu ev bisnes anelu hamar vochmiayn petqe imanal sayt stexcelu hmtutyunner@, ayl nayev ayn jisht matucel@, vorin menq qayl ar qayl tirapetel ev der tirapeteluenq das@ntacneri @ntacqum. Menq arajin ashkertnernenq, bayc mer kap@ erbeqel chenq korcni @nker Armani het qani vor na misht patraste patasxanel ir bolor ashakertnerin huzox harcerin. Bolorin xorhurdem talis grancvel ev masnakcel das@ntacnerin manavanq vor ayn dzez trvume anvjar, chapazanc harmaravet dzer isk tanic webinarneri mijocov ev amenakarevor@ kapvumenq mimianc ev uraxanum mer das@nkerneri araj@ntacnerov ev hajoxutyunnerov` @nker Armani glxavorutyamb. Es husovem vor ays dproc@ kunena erkar ev kanach janapar qani vor ayn uni azniv npatakner. MAXTUMEM AMENALAVN U BARIN.Dzer dproci arajin ashakertneric` Bagrat ^_^

      March 24, 2012 at 5:15 am | Report abuse |
  8. Matt

    "hard amour-like spacesuits?" Shouldn't that be "armor-like?"

    October 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pig of Science

      apparently it is hard to find true love on the moon.

      October 29, 2011 at 7:04 am | Report abuse |
      • Lame

        Cogmeyer: Nobody was going to steal a KCRA van. In fact, it wasn't even a van. It was an unmarked SUV that KCRA ocnaaiocslly uses for shoots that don't require a liveshot (no antenna on the truck). They look just like your ordinary Jeep Cherokee or Ford Explorer.The thief broke in to steal a camera, which was bolted down by the photographer. The photog wasn't even on duty he was on his lunch break.

        August 30, 2012 at 7:27 am | Report abuse |
  9. pulsars

    I bet those women had tears in their eyes when they saw the space suits they constructed on TV as Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history walking on the surface of the Moon. People on this board with the opinion of "big deal" or "so what?" should mention what have they done in their careers that trivializes the historic contribution these wonderful women have made. BTW, finally moving out of your mom's basement and getting your own apartment doesn't count.

    October 29, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      Yes, I'm sure they had tears in their eyes! Tears because they did a great job and did not get paid for it! Did anyone give these great women a bonus? Did these women get to make anymore space suits? Who made all the suits for the shuttle program?

      October 29, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. John Henson

    Actually, this story has been told. It was told in the film, "From the Earth to the Moon" by Tom Hanks in one of the episode's introductions.

    October 29, 2011 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
  11. dale moyers

    The moon landing was a hoax, we did not have the technology to do a moon landing at that time.

    October 29, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • StanCalif

      I agree with you. Why? For some reason it is now impossible to go to the moon. All the talk about building a base on the moon for further space exploration has been abandoned. Now we learn, from modern scientific work, that the moon may indeed have water resources. Of course, the "moon rocks" all came from Arizona or New Mexico where some Hollywood studio was contracted to secretly film our landing on the moon! No human has been to the moon! It's all a lie. Sure, we may be able to see junk on the moon with telescopes. Easy to crash junk on the moon as evidence.

      October 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jack

        JESmith on October 6, 2008 Geez, this has to be my least favorite Kate so far. Hopefully when the tour ends Kelli Sawyer will reijon the Broadway cast she may not be as good as Stephanine or Juile but she's better than the one here. Its nice to see that Carla Renata(Gary) has joined the Broadway cast though. She's the best Gary in my opinion.

        October 29, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. J. Major

    Excellent story! The Apollo program employed over 450,000 people across the US, and stories like this are the gems that remind us exactly how we got an amazing thing done. Back then, our drive and spirit overruled the idea that we "didn't have the technology". No, we didn't have it. We MADE it, and combined it with the talent and drive of hundreds of thousands of people. Only then could we accomplish something that otherwise couldn't be done. And to all you "hoaxers" out claim that it was all a lie is to literally slap each one of those people in the face, as well as a slap to your own species in the face, because you're ultimately saying that humans can't achieve amazing things. If that's really the world you think you live in, then I'm sorry for you.

    October 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Monii

      strneoo123 on December 24, 2008 i agree with muriness1 my mother has a 03Spectra..its very realiable and the public is accepting Kia & Hyundai way faster then Toyota & Honda was a long time ago, giving time Kia's reputation will be on par with Toyota's, the Korean comp. resale value are now on par & better then some domestic companies

      February 26, 2012 at 6:29 am | Report abuse |
    • Ich

      Midori0Akagawa on May 10, 2009 I love this song and Avenue Q and Ib4d love to see this live! But Ib4m from Germany and I think it will take many years, till I can get to one of their shows T-T Thank you for taking it here x3

      October 31, 2012 at 5:38 am | Report abuse |
  13. IT IS ALL A LIE!

    Ask yourself this. If they truly went to the moon and survived the radiation belt that is between earth and the moon which by the way is a thousand times stronger than the radiation mess on Three Mile Island. Than why doesnt NASA donate Suits to help clean up Three Mile Island or Tronobile. They dont because those suits NEVER LEFT EARTH! And anyone wearing one would be killed from lack of protection from radiation.

    October 29, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • rob welch

      Thank you.

      October 29, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matthew Black

      For godsakes would you conspiracy nuts please just GO AWAY! The U.S. went to the Moon 9 times and landed six times. End of story. Get over it. Why do you expend energy wasting your time disputing this? 842 pound of moon rocks did not get here by themselves, even though lunar meteors are sometimes found in the Antarctic. Do some research, learn some science and history not tainted by cult or religious leanings. The reason no one has returned to the Moon in nearly 40 years is because politicians want to keep spending money on wars and paying people to do NOTHING. And its hard to get into low Earth orbit at the moment, let alone anywhere else. Do research, learn about this subject and the veil will be lifted from your sad, negative eyes!! Apollo was an anomaly – a reach into the far future that grabbed a hold of that slippery future for a brief time.

      November 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
      • J. Major

        Not to mention we're all out of Saturn Vs.

        November 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse |
        • Matthew Black

          Actually: there are two complete Saturn Vs that could have flown Apollos 18 and 19 – one at the KSC Saturn V visitors center in Florida and another at the Space Center, Houston. In Huntsville, Alabama there is a display vehicle made up of test stages. Various unused Command Modules and Lunar Modules are scattered at various museums throughout America. And now, three Shuttles with plenty of life left in them are to join them. Sad...

          November 3, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
      • Yohana

        LizandClayton on September 4, 2011 I love their wetbise! Love that they do custom orders. I really like the toddler (1-6) hoodie towel. It looks so soft and actually big enough to cover a toddler. I also love the printed blankets! ENTER ME

        February 26, 2012 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  14. Heywood Jablome

    What exactly is Tronobile?? mean Chernoybl–I hope I spelled that right–sorry if I didn't. Bottom line is that these ladies did something that is scarce and unknown to todays Americans–they worked as a team, took pride in their work, encouraged each other and worked for the common good of the people and nation. These ladies stood for a time when we actually were proud of our country and didn't bash it every time we had the chance. Heywood sez that they treated life like a refrigerator–they got out of it what they put into it. Huuuuzahhhhh:):)

    October 29, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. J. Major

    (I can't believe I'm even entertaining this but here goes)
    #1. The Van Allen belts and radiation can be endured by humans for a certain length of time. The Apollo astronauts were not exposed to lethal doses of radiation long enough to cause any serious damage. And even then they were willing to take the risks to their long-term health.
    #2. I advise anyone who's skeptical t check out noted astronomer Phil Plait's page which addresses the "hoax" arguments point-by-point: If you have an argument with any of those points, then your argument is with science and physics, not with NASA.

    October 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  16. B in MN

    Why did the narrator refer to these women as "girls?" How condescending.

    October 30, 2011 at 7:19 am | Report abuse |
  17. B in MN

    These workers were not "girls" in 1968, they were and are women.

    October 30, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
  18. duderino

    ah, the good old days when an employee could poke a coworker "in the butt" and no one gets sued 🙂

    October 30, 2011 at 8:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Jassi

      What a great idea with the pizza! I wish they had more wheat-free fbatlreads out there so that I could do the same. Booo Brittany @ Itty Bits of Balance recently posted..

      February 24, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
      • Soha

        Thanks Jeff for the post. There are a couple of other Chicago area sarlsfoece admins that are going to be authoring my blog as well, Ryan Klein and Dave Beaudoin. They have great ideas to share and tons of sarlsfoece experience.

        August 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marc

      litkomita on August 30, 2011 I like that I am a grateful person. I love being able to show my appreciation to others and count all of my blessings. I dont like taking things for granted, because life is so special and the people you love should feel they are loved.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  19. iGnored

    When are we planning to visit again??? are we running out of these suits or boots ??? hah....Jurks !!!

    October 30, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  20. lol

    "Poked in the butt with a needle" translates today as "stabbed by fellow coworker"

    October 30, 2011 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  21. lol

    Oh and then the stabee would sue, the job would be sent to china and people on cnn boards would say "wow, bet that suit says made in china"

    October 30, 2011 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • rob welch

      lol thats the truth

      October 30, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  22. jjcapesta

    Did we go? I don't know for sure. I want to believe. But after 42 years and no moon base or return it makes me skeptical. With new commercial ventures shaping up, we will find out for sure. Oh and the things that were left behind could have easily been put there with unmanned probes.

    October 30, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
  23. EA Marco Polo

    1969 to 1972 could, but now could not?

    Human still have not landed on Moon.

    It is a big lie made by President Nixon.

    For promoting the morale in the losing Vietnam war.

    October 31, 2011 at 3:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Mustafa

      rickiZEbabe on August 30, 2011 i like how i am quiet poisitsve about myself. i don't go around saying i'm fat' i'm ugly' yes i'm not the prettiest girl and i know what i would like to change about myself, but i still think i am quiet pretty xx

      February 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
      • rob welch

        makes good sense to me...

        February 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Report abuse |