Did NASA really pick the brains of the Tower of London armoury when designing the first space suits?

I’ve read that King Henry VIII’s armour was of particular interest to NASA?

Illustration by Glen McBeth

The earliest space suits were basically adaptations of the high-altitude pressure suits worn by aircraft pilots. But as the American space programme progressed, more sophisticated gear was needed, particularly for walking on the moon.

The technical challenge was making a fully enclosed suit that would permit the astronaut maximum mobility; medieval armour was one historical precedent. The Tower of London had an especially fine example in the form of tournament armour made for Henry VIII to use at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

In 1962, the Tower was approached by Garrett AiResearch, one of the firms working on the spacesuit problem for NASA. The company had been directed to the Tower by the New York Metropolitan Museum, which pointed out that the suit was designed for foot combat, not horseback, and would therefore have no gaps at all.

The Tower sent Garrett photos and data on the armour, in which each plate of steel fitted flawlessly over the next, giving the wearer complete freedom of movement. (For as long as he could carry its 42-kilo weight that is!)

One NASA engineer supposedly said he wished they’d known about Henry’s armour sooner as it would have saved time and money. NASA acknowledged its debt in the 1970s when it sent a replica Apollo suit to London to be photographed next to the armour. The suit is currently at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.  

Answered by: Eugene Byrne, author and journalist

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