Conserving Artifacts from Command Module Columbia

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

In the fall of 2017, a number of artifacts from the Apollo 11 mission began a tour of four US cities as part of the exhibition Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, a project organized by the  National Air and Space Museum  and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES). One of the smaller artifacts in this exhibit is a medical accessory kit, which was stowed aboard the Command Module Columbia during the historic lunar mission. As the Engen Pre-program Conservation Fellow, I had the opportunity to examine, research, and treat condition issues for this medical kit along with other small Apollo 11 artifacts.

This project involved assessing the present condition of the artifact as well as using extensive written and photographic documentation to record observations about its materials and construction. I looked for labels, inscriptions, previous repairs, evidence of historic use, material degradation, and any damage the artifact may have incurred during the mission or post-flight. While conducting background research, I discovered an incredible piece of information that informed the preservation of this important piece of space history.

Before Treatment Condition and Construction

The medical accessory kit was missing the majority of the left side of the lid wall (indicated in red in the above image). The edge appeared quite clean, possibly indicating an intentional cut for an unknown purpose, though we had no idea how or when the damage occurred.

Although this resulted in some instability of the materials, the cutaway allowed us to see the layered structure of the container, giving greater than normal insight into the object’s construction.

The walls of the container are composed of seven layers of various materials including an outer white Beta cloth shell (a woven Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric) with five alternating layers of aluminized Mylar (a polyester film coated with a thin layer of aluminum), and a synthetic textile (likely Nomex) sandwiched in between.

Some of the synthetic textile layers are infused with an unknown material that stiffened the textile. The layered construction of the Beta cloth container served as insulation for the medical supplies from temperature variance and radiation and also protected it from interior sources of damage such as possible rips or tears. A similar but more extensive layered construction was used for the Thermal Micrometeoroid Garments (TMG) worn by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

In addition to the lid damage, the handling strap at the back of the container was completely detached at the right side and only loosely attached at the left.

Other significant condition issues included evidence of a prior leak to the nasal emollient, an iodized blend of botanical oils. In addition, the three natural latex urine cuffs in the kit were severely degraded, becoming extremely brittle and severely discolored.

There was also a tear to the Beta cloth on the right side of the container’s lid near the back of the kit as well as a significant amount of surface dirt and debris which gave the object an overall soiled appearance.

Background Research

As part of my initial assessment of the medical kit’s condition, I also conducted background research into the artifact before and after it entered the Museum’s collection. I wanted to establish when and how the damage occurred and whether it was appropriate to make repairs in these areas as part of our conservation treatment.

I was able to find wonderful diagrams illustrating the stowage location of the medical accessory kit. The kit was in a compartment on the right side wall of Columbia, beside the lunar module pilot couch.

NASA documents often include extensive details about the equipment used during missions. According to the 1969 Apollo 11 mission report, when the crew accessed the medical kit during flight, the packaging of many medications and bandages had “blown up like balloons because insufficient air had been evacuated during packaging.” The increased volume of the contents prevented the medical kit from closing and being re-stowed in its proper location. To remedy this situation, the left wall of the lid was cut away by one of the astronauts, resulting in the present condition we see today. In addition, this report also described how the container’s handling strap was detached sometime during the flight.

This information was incredibly valuable for my proposed treatment for this artifact, because the damage was historic to the Apollo 11 mission and not something that occurred after the kit entered our collection. Preserving and stabilizing this evidence of the kit’s use in flight helps tell that story.

Conservation Treatment

The damaged areas of the Beta cloth container were too unstable for travel during the exhibition, so we needed a stabilization solution. After consultation with the curator about my proposed treatment, I began with the handling strap. I reinforced the existing loose attachment on the left side with navy blue cotton polyester blend thread. This reinforcement anchored the strap along the back of the container. The contrasting color of the repair thread allows it to be distinguished as unoriginal material when the medical kit is examined in the future. In addition, this treatment is fully reversible.

Stabilizing the cut wall of the medical kit’s lid would take a more thoughtful approach. I chose to use a mount to stabilize this area. Working with a Museum exhibits specialist, we designed brass clips coated in polyolefin shrink tubing for placement over the cut area. These clips would hold the exposed, layered wall of the container together for upcoming transport and display, preventing potential damage.

A treatment solution was also needed to stabilize the tear to the Beta cloth near the back of the container. I chose to stabilize the fraying Beta cloth with a series of loose overlaid stitches using undyed hair silk. This reversible repair would prevent the expansion of this tear during transport and associated handling for exhibition.

At the beginning of this project, we knew that a few of the medical supplies would have to be removed from the kit before it was transported. These items were removed, documented, and placed in storage until the kit returns from the tour. Archival foam blocks were inserted into the empty compartments, as well as behind medical supplies that were sliding too easily within their compartments.

The treatment of this Apollo 11 artifact was a wonderful opportunity to solve the stabilization needs of this artifact creatively and collaboratively. The before and after treatment comparison images show surface cleaning via gentle brush vacuuming. Conservators use a special variable speed, HEPA filtered vacuum unit with micro attachments at the nozzle which facilitates gentle and controlled removal of loose surface soiling. As you can see, this treatment greatly improved the overall appearance of the object.

This treatment also offered me an opportunity for collaboration with various museum staff members from other departments. Such collaboration is an important skill a conservator must develop and master in order to effectively communicate and advocate for the short- and long-term preservation of artifacts.

Credits: Story

By: Meghann Kozak, Engen Pre-program Conservation Fellow

Credits: All media
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