The American Society of Mechanical Engineers on Friday honored the ILC Apollo-era space suit as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Forty-four years ago, Homer Reihm was probably one of the most nervous men in America. As he watched Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, Reihm's eyes were glued not to Armstrong, but to the white spacesuit the first man on the moon was wearing. Reihm's workers at Dover's International Latex Corporation had built that suit, and had put it through almost every engineering test imaginable. But the final test was unfolding in front of the entire world: would the product of thousands of hours of work and the labor of hundreds of ILC employees keep Armstrong and companion astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin alive? “We were confident,” Reihm said Friday afternoon, “but with the moon, there always was a chance for a surprise.” ILC's model A7L suit worked flawlessly, as has every other spacesuit manufactured by the Dover company, now based in Frederica. ILC's achievements with the Apollo suit were recognized Friday by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, which proclaimed the suit its 255th Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. The award was presented by ASME past President John Parker in the presence of current and former ILC workers, including some who actually worked on Armstrong's suit in the late 1960s. The honor was, “a testimony to the highly skilled group of engineers who captured the imagination of the world,” Parker said. The Apollo suit was, “most likely the most complex piece of clothing ever made.” The Apollo suit actually was a self-contained space ship designed to keep a man alive in the most hostile environment imaginable. It also had to allow that man to work on the lunar surface and to pilot a spacecraft to the moon and back. Like most Apollo hardware, it was created without the use of computers, engineering software or electronic calculators. ASME bestows its Landmark title on mechanical systems that represent the evolution of mechanical engineering. Several other artifacts from the Apollo program already received the Landmark designation. In addition to Reihm, two of the seamstresses who created the Apollo suit were in the audience: Ruth “Ruthie” Ratledge, who joined the ILC team as a temporary worker in 1964 and today continues to stitch together suits used on the International Space Station, and Roberta “Bertie” Pilkenton, who retired from ILC 10 years ago. ASME's honor, Pilkenton said, “means the world to me, especially knowing I had a hand in this.” The suit was, in the words of ASME DelMarVa subsection Chairman Raymond Jackson, “an enormous piece of engineering work. “From the sewers to the developers to the astronauts, we are all immensely proud of your employees who have provided an engineering advancement that is equal to none.” ILC today continues to provide components for suits used aboard the International Space Station and is working on the next generation of space suits, designed for use on the moon and Mars. “It's just exciting that something we did 40 years ago still is relevant today,” said CEO William Wallach.