Image: Soviet moonsuit
Ray Cunningham
A Soviet moonsuit, never used for its intended purpose, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 7/24/2009 9:03:30 PM ET 2009-07-25T01:03:30

My first face-to-face meeting with the Soviet "moonsuit," built for a cosmonaut to wear while walking on the moon before Neil Armstrong, was in a dingy warehouse in an even dingier Upper East Side corner of Manhattan.

The large, dusty room was otherwise filled with art objects — statues, paintings, lamps, boxes of artifacts — that reminded me of the cluttered castle of Xanadu in the movie "Citizen Kane." And as was usually the case with my dealings with Russia’s mysterious space program over the years, my encounter with the moonsuit involved solving a puzzle.

This was in 1993, decades after the Soviet man-to-the-moon project collapsed, and not long after the entire Soviet Union disintegrated. With government salaries ebbing, space program veterans sought cash anywhere they could find it.  

One opportunity to find money involved offering artifacts, documents and other memorabilia at auction. Sotheby's hired me to authenticate the trove of shipped articles and help write the sales catalog.

So there I stood. In the center of the warehouse collection of space capsules, limp spacesuits and crates of smaller artifacts, there was a white spacesuit, standing erect inside a pipe framework. The helmet visor was dark. On its back, a suitcase-sized knapsack contained air and power supplies for the occupant. The owners claimed that it had been built for use on the moon.

Twenty-four years earlier, when it was Armstrong’s footprints, in an American moonsuit, that marked the moon’s surface, the Russian song was entirely different. With the stunning American victory in the moon race came Moscow's new propaganda line. Apollo proved nothing, because the Soviets had been too wise to waste its resources on such meaningless stunts.

That line — that the "race" was a one-sided American wild goose chase — sounded entirely reasonable to many in the West. Books and TV documentaries largely adopted that verdict: Apollo, while showing commendable virtuosity and courage, was an "empty victory."

It wasn’t until 20 years after Apollo 11, in the final months of the Soviet Union's collapse, that many of Moscow's long-hidden moon secrets began emerging into daylight. At first there were newspaper interviews with Russian scientists and engineers, then pictures of the spaceships and boosters they had tried to build, and finally a trickle of actual hardware, stashed away in back rooms here and there in Moscow.

By then, the USSR had collapsed, the space workers were starving, and a new purpose was found for the leftover lunar equipment: sheer survival. Money. Hence the private sales, the quiet exports, and then a series of highly publicized auctions such as the one that brought me face-to-face with a token of that hidden past.

Close encounter of a moonsuit kind
But was the suit held in the Sotheby’s warehouse really a lunar artifact? If so, how could I prove it? That was the puzzle of the day.

"We've assembled it from written directions in the packing crates," David Redden, my host, explained. "They tell us that the back of the suit opens up, to allow the cosmonaut to enter the suit. But we haven't been able to get it open." He stepped back and looked at me expectantly.

Alone, I faced the spacesuit and the challenge. About a dozen employees of the auction house stood in a semicircle behind me. They had paid for my airplane ticket and my hotel, and were paying my consulting fee, and now they expected to see the promised expertise in action.

Although I had never been up close to such a suit before, I had read accounts by cosmonauts about their experiences with similar versions aboard Russian space stations. The backpack was opened by a 50-centimeter (20-inch) lever on the right hip — there it was! — but the lever was also designed to prevent accidental activation. Opening the hatch at the wrong time would kill the spacewalking cosmonaut.

There! At the end of the lever, where a gloved right hand would grip the lever and lay its thumb, was a spring-loaded red button. I depressed the button and the lever moved freely. But now, which way to move it, up or down?

I asked myself, which way would it be pushed by accident? That's the way you would not want it to mean "open"! Otherwise, a freak bump backward against a wall could accidentally open the suit to vacuum. So cautiously — but with feigned confidence — I grasped the lever, depressed the button on the end and pushed the lever downward, away from the cosmonaut's torso.

It moved a few centimeters, and then there was a "click" as the suit's backpack lurched slightly on its hinges. The circle of onlookers inhaled in expectation.

‘Expert-for-hire’ put to the test
With my thumb still on the red button, I continued moving the lever, and the locking mechanism moved from the "safe" position to the "open" position. The backpack swung away from the suit, revealing the padded interior.

Around me, the witnesses "aahed" in pleasure and pressed forward to examine the previously hidden secrets of the spacesuit. I stepped back, relieved that I had passed the test.

A Disney cartoon image came to me from the ancient British legend of King Arthur, where the young Arthur proved his identity by pulling a sacred sword from a stone. He really was the king, and I — to the satisfaction of all witnesses — really was an expert-for-hire!

I returned to examine the suit's interior, curious to see what might be different about it. The suits I had studied before had been used aboard space stations orbiting Earth, while this suit was supposed to have been built for the secret Russian moon program in the 1960s. If the program had not failed, a cosmonaut would have worn this suit while walking on the surface of the moon.

The inside looked just like the pictures and drawings I had seen of the space station suits. There were plastic lines carrying cooling water for the cosmonaut's body heat. There were wires carrying the power and telemetry signals. There in the swung-open backpack were the batteries, the radio, the air bottles and the fans.

But then I spotted the difference, and I knew for sure that this was a genuine moonsuit.

There, by both shoulders, were two upside-down-Y-shaped, padded strut-mounted yokes designed to rest on the cosmonaut's shoulders, transferring the suit's weight onto his body as he stood erect.

The suit had weight only when it was on the moon. Later suits built for use in the weightlessness of space stations did not need such a support mechanism. They did not have yokes, as I knew from photographs. Yet here they were in this suit — proof that it was indeed built for the moon.

Secret souvenirs
In the end, I never managed to personally obtain any of the items offered for sale at that Sotheby’s auction, or the second one a few years later — the sale prices went sky high. But I had held many of them in my own hands, and got photocopies of important historical documents.

Image N-1 launch
Energia via Astronautix.com
The Soviet N-1 5L rocket lifts off on July 3, 1969. The vehicle exploded shortly after launch.
I’m not envious of those who bought them. During one trip to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as part of a documentary production for public television's "Nova" series, I was given what would be my most treasured memento of the moon race: a battered fragment of metal.

It told the whole story.

About the size and shape of my hand, the aluminum shard looked 'gooey' where it had been melted, and also gouged where it had been hit, still partially molten, by fast-moving debris. It was a piece of the Soviet Union's greatest moon secret, its N-1 super-rocket, which had blown up at the cosmodrome just after liftoff, two weeks before Apollo 11 was launched.

Although the Soviet space engineers failed in their secret drive to upstage Apollo, their program did not die in vain. The public may not have known much about it, but American spy satellites caught images of the giant rocket, so the United States was not tempted to "drop out" of the race early.

That rocket — which never succeeded over a series of heartbreaking launches between 1969 and 1973 — was the goad up NASA's backside that ensured crucial government support during a period of national crises.

The metal shard sits on my desk, and I reflect on how it has two sides. From the Soviet view, it represents a dream that died, a streaked metal tear. From my point of view, it (and the moonsuit, and all the other hardware we’ve finally been able to examine) represents the secret spur that propelled Apollo to the finish line, the key to the door of our future. Not bad for a hunk of slag.

More on Apollo 11 | Soviet space


... And what happened to the moonsuit? Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot (who was between presidential campaigns) acquired the suit along with more than 200 other Soviet space artifacts at the 1993 Sotheby's auction, at a total cost of about $4 million. The suit and other itemswere passed along to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum under the provisions of a long-term loan. The moonsuit is on display at the museum to this day.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of "Red Star in Orbit" and other books about the U.S. and Russian space programs.

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