The Bra-Maker Who Won the Right To Make Astronaut Spacesuits



One of the underrated technical challenges of going to the moon was designing the spacesuits. The suits had to be inflated and pressurized from the inside — meaning they had to carry around a tiny version of the atmosphere human beings required to stay alive. In essence, the suits were sophisticated balloons. They also had to be tough, able to withstand a temperature range of 500º — from -280º in the shadows to +240º in the sun, as well as survive being hit by a micrometeorite going 36,000 mph while astronauts were wearing them. The most daunting challenge? The suits also had to be flexible. The company that managed to figure out how to solve the problem was Playtex, the famous maker of bras and girdles of the 1950s. Playtex was part of the company International Latex Company and an unlikely choice. Big defense contractors wanted to make the spacesuit. So how did NASA — a vast male-dominated organization — pick the maker of female undergarments? NASA staged a competition to see who could make the best suit. Playtex wasn’t invited to participate in the face-off, so company officials immediately flew to Houston and essentially begged to be allowed to submit a suit into the competition, at their own expense, to be tested alongside the others. The Playtex suit went head-to-head with its rivals in a demanding series of side-by-side tests and was judged far and away the best. Some of the layers were, in fact, composed of bra and girdle material, including nylon tricot. The Playtex suits worked perfectly, and they became powerful cultural symbols.