Your best blazer’s got nothing on these bad boys.
Everybody has that one outfit they love more than any other. There’s a good chance you spent a lot of money on yours, but would you pay $1 million for it?
How about if it could keep you alive in space?
You might not have that kind of money to spend, but NASA sure does. For more than 50 years, the only organization to successfully complete a manned trip to the moon has relied on a single company — ILC Dover in Frederica, Delaware — to create space suits for astronauts.
According to a Wired profile on the business, the process to make one of these suits is agonizingly long. Although the suits are now made to fit a wide range of body types and sizes, rather than tailored to a specific astronaut, they still require a lot of precision. Each one needs about 5,000 hours of work from start to finish, which ends up costing around $1 million.
Months of work for a single suit may seem like a lot, but it’s absolutely necessary. These units are designed to withstand the extreme lack of pressure in space, as well as temperatures reaching around -455° F.
Additionally, ILC Dover must ensure that the astronaut doesn’t overheat. The people wearing these suits are generally performing some kind of manual labor and are therefore prone to sweating and raised body temperatures. To compensate, ILC Dover created a system of tubes that distribute cooling liquids throughout the suit to keep the person inside comfortable.
ILC Dover performs rigorous testing on each of the suits it produces. Below is a picture of a volunteer testing out a suit’s arm flexibility. The suits NASA uses on its space shuttle missions weigh around 310 pounds, which is why testers must be suspended by a cable.
While all this is complicated work, it’s nothing new to ILC Dover. The company has been in the space suit business since 1965, when it was first contracted by NASA.
Before that, ILC Dover was a women’s underwear producer called Playtex. According to Wired, WWII changed all that—the company began to create products for the war effort. When the war ended, Playtex divided into different divisions, one of which began to develop flight suits for pilots. After a name change and decades of experience with suits for pilots, ILC Dover accrued enough expertise to be considered for the production of space suits.
Since 1965, every single American to slip the surly bonds of earth has worn an ILC Dover space suit. This includes Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first people to walk on the moon.
Forward-thinking companies like ILC Dover aren’t ever happy sitting on their laurels, and it looks like the next big hurdle for the company is Mars. The organization has already developed airbags that safely put the first rover on the Red Planet. On top of that, ILC Dover is working on what it calls its Z-2 suits, built to withstand the higher gravity on Mars.
With big figures like Elon Musk working to colonize Mars, you or your kids might get to know ILC Dover’s handiwork sooner than you think.