Art and Space Conservation Unite Over Rubber

Buzz Aldrin, photographed by Neil Armstrong, wearing his intravehicular suit made from the same fabric as the outer layer of the spacesuits.
Buzz Aldrin, photographed by Neil Armstrong, wearing his intravehicular suit made from the same fabric as the outer layer of the spacesuits.

“Interdisciplinary” has been a buzzword in the scientific circles for well over a decade. But nothing emphasizes the interconnections between different areas of research than the unexpected ones, like the one Sarah Everts, senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News, highlights in the blog Artful Science: space science and art conservation.

Everts discovered the connection between the two while reporting on spacesuits worn in the 1960s and 1970s by NASA astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their spacewalks and on the moon are now falling apart. She describes the issues conservators are facing in trying to keep the space suits in pristine condition.

The space suits were made with a myriad of materials, many of them polymers like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), nylon, and polycarbonate. PVC was used in the tubes that provided life support to the astronauts. But PVC’s di­octyl phthalate plasticizer leaches to the surface of the material.

In the space suits, the phthalates crystallized on the surface of the tubing and then began breaking down into a brownish-orange compound that stained outside of the white space suits.

The most pressing problem, however, is with rubber. Rubbers in the space suits are a mix of natural latex rubber and synthetic neoprene rubber. And here comes the connection to art, as Everts reports in the blog:

Lisa Young, the conservator in charge of the moon-race suits at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., says that the most problematic parts are the rubber bladders used to keep the air pressure inside the suit comfortable for the astronauts. These rubber components used to be stretchy and malleable but now they’ve become hard, turned orange and are starting to crack. This makes sense: Imagine trying to use a rubber band purchased 50 years ago. It would crumble in your hand as you stretched it.

But 50 years ago, artists were also incorporating rubber (typically listed as latex in museum labels) in all sorts of sculptures. Lo and behold, these rubber sculptures are also turning orange and brittle. For example, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, just down the street from the National Air and Space Museum, rubber components of the Fishman sculpture made in 1960 by the Brooklyn artist Paul Thek are both turning orange and have cracked in several places, says Hirshhorn conservator Kate Moomaw.

Everts says that the polymers in rubber react with oxygen. Over time, oxygen causes more chemical connections between the polymer molecules in the rubber. This in turn makes the rubber more brittle and rigid, and give it that orange color.

Conservators are researching ways to heal damaged rubber in artwork without further harming the pieces of art. They usually do their work on artificially aged rubber, which isn’t quite ideal. So, space suits to the rescue!

Young told Everts that she and her team have baggies full of rubber crumbs from space suits that they are willing to share with conservators who need samples on which to try out restoration solutions before they execute them on valuable artwork.

Source: “Saving Space Suits,” Chemical & Engineering News, 05/09/11
Source: “Could Spacesuits Embark On A Mission To Save Modern Art?,” Artful Science, 05/09/11
Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, used under its Creative Commons license.

Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.