History Stories

On July 20, the 46th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on the moon, the Smithsonian made some history of its own by embarking on its first-ever Kickstarter campaign in a quest to raise $500,000 to preserve the spacesuit Armstrong wore during his two-and-a-half-hour walk on the lunar surface.

The launch went as smoothly as that of the Saturn V rocket that propelled Armstrong and fellow astronauts Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins toward the moon in 1969. Thousands of backers encouraged by the Smithsonian to “Reboot the Suit” made pledges, and in just five days the project met its goal. The National Air and Space Museum will use the money to conserve and digitize Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019. The donated funds will also pay for a custom-built mannequin and a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled display case to house the spacesuit in the museum’s new “Destination Moon” exhibition, which is scheduled to open in 2020 to replace the current “Apollo to the Moon” gallery. The new exhibition will also display parts of the Apollo Mission Simulator and Apollo 11’s command module Columbia.

Donors ranged from what the Smithsonian called “One Small Step” backers who gave as little as $1 to a handful of contributors who pledged more than $10,000 a piece. As in all Kickstarter projects, financial backers received rewards, which ranged from space ice cream and specially designed mission patches to Smithsonian flags that flew in space and a chance to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Delaware factory where Armstrong’s spacesuit was constructed.

Image placeholder title

The 21-layer spacesuit worn by Armstrong, who passed away in 2012, was built with a combination of 12 synthetic materials, which have a half-life of approximately 50 years and have begun degrading. The spacesuit, still bearing particles of lunar dust, was last on public display in 2006 and is currently stored in a climate-controlled conservation facility.

Advances in conservation and imaging technology will allow museum staff to document and monitor both the visible and invisible portions of the spacesuit. “We are going to carefully document the suit through photographic, chemical and historical research in a more detailed way than we have ever been able to do before,” National Air and Space Museum curator Cathy Lewis said on the museum’s blog. “We plan to use state-of-the-art techniques in 3-D scanning, photogrammetry, chemical analysis, CT scanning and other means available to create a detailed map of the suit that will document its condition in the most complete way possible.” The Smithsonian has already scanned a number of its iconic artifacts, such as the Wright Brothers’ airplane that first took flight in 1903.

nasa, space

Alan Shepard’s spacesuit, worn during the first manned spaceflight in 1961. (Credit: NASA)

When the conservation is complete, the suit won’t look much different to the naked eye. Museum staff will even preserve the lunar dust attached to it. Aldrin’s Apollo 11 spacesuit is currently on display inside the National Air and Space Museum, while the suit belonging to Collins is currently in storage.

Although the Smithsonian receives government funding, it notes that federal appropriations cover less than two-thirds of its budget. The institution relies heavily on private philanthropy for the balance of its money, and the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform offered it a way to broaden its donor base. The campaign also marks the first time Kickstarter has partnered with a museum, and according to MarketWatch, another three to four similar projects with the Smithsonian are planned in the coming year.

With the Kickstarter project not due to expire until August 19, the Smithsonian is hoping to raise another $200,000 to conserve, digitize and display the Mercury spacesuit worn by Alan Shepard when he became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. The National Air and Space Museum hopes to display the restored suit along with Armstrong’s in the “Destination Moon” exhibition. With two weeks remaining in the campaign, more than $100,000 has already been raised for the conservation of Shepard’s spacesuit.

As of August 5, nearly 8,000 backers have pledged more than $600,000 in total to the Smithsonian’s inaugural Kickstarter campaign. For more information or to contribute, visit the Smithsonian’s Kickstarter page.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.