Before the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts could brave the terrible vastness of space, they first had to survive Nevada.
NASA always planned to bring their boys home with a parachute-guided splashdown followed by a leisurely cruise across the North Pacific. As it happens, that’s exactly how things went.
The Apollo 11 Splash Down. (Credit: NASA)
But there was always a concern something might go off course. In the event of an emergency landing, there’s no telling where an astronaut might find themselves. So through the 1960s, NASA assigned their astronaut candidates to a series of courses at Stead Airforce Base, just north of Reno.
There they were taught desert survival techniques by U.S. Air Force instructors, hoping to prepare them for a worst-case scenario landing in the Kalahari or Arabian deserts — wherever they might land, far away from civilization, out of touch with NASA, until a rescue team could reach them.
“There is a remote possibility that we could impact in the west African desert, should our orbital insertion be somewhat under speed and our retrorockets not have adequate thrust,” wrote Deke Slayton. “This possibility is very remote, but [training for it] it is an indication of our attempt to train for any possibility, no matter how remote.”
The Apollo astronauts spent a few days learning the basics — how to find water, forage for food, seek shelter. Then, in August 1964, they put their skills to the test for 3 days in the baking heat of the Carson Sink, where less than 5 inches of rainfall a year, and surface temperatures cook well past 120 degrees.
Astronauts Frank Borman, Neil Armstrong, John Young and Deke Slayton. (Credit: NASA)
One of the first things a would-be space castaway needs is protection from the punishing, sweltering sun. The astronauts were taught to quickly transform their parachutes into robes, fashion headgear, and braid cords into rope. Their rucksacks contained some critical pieces to complete the look — NASA issue goggles, metallic sun bonnets, knives, and water pouches.
The photos from this period are surreal. Some of the most highly trained test pilots and engineers of their day, soon to explore another world for the first time, caught somewhere between Lawrence of Arabia and Swiss Family Robinson.
From left to right: L. Gordon Cooper, M. Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Virgil I. Grissom, Walter Schirra and Donald K. Slayton. (credit: NASA)
Reimagining The Rucksack
“I learned about the Desert Survival story via Playtex,” artist Gene Bunger told Supercluster.
“About a year ago I came across these photos of astronauts testing space suits in front of a black and white background. It kicked me down a rabbit hole on the history of spacesuit design, particularly the Apollo 11 suit. In a nutshell, you had a bunch of space industry contractors trying to design personalized spacecraft suits. Then Playtex, a women's undergarment manufacturer, was brought on board and kicked everyone’s ass with hand-sewn, layered suits.”
The Playtex story is the stuff of NASA legend. In the early 1960s manufacturers were asked to bid on the design of the Apollo spacesuit. At the time there was a long-running debate on the merits of rigid suits, with mechanical joints. Rather than pursue a conventional rigid design, Playtex had invented a type of “bellowed” joint, with flexible rubber that provided far more maneuverability. NASA was impressed, and Playtex was brought on the project.
Playtex Seamstresses sewing prototype suits. (Credit: NASA)
Other contractors were skeptical about a company best known for bras and girdles, however, and Internal tensions ultimately led to their dismissal. Later, their former partner, Hamilton-Standard, struggled to make progress. Playtex was given one last shot at the bid, but NASA refused to cover their R&D expenses. Their designers worked around the clock to develop a flexible suit — and when NASA tested it against the other two contractors, the Playtex suit vastly outperformed.
It went on to become the space suit Apollo astronauts wore when they first set foot on the moon.
“You had all these badass seamstresses and pattern makers wrestling these materials, cutting, sewing, and cementing them together,” says Gene. “I became inspired by their hands-on process, and highly considered detailing. I started a project to celebrate this era of space race material engineering and the talented artisans at Playtex and NASA who made all this possible.”
Further down the rabbit hole, Gene found more artifacts from the Apollo missions. “I was later looking at all the little bags from similar missions, first aid kits, meal packages, all tailored toward a purpose, by human hands. I came across this odd-shaped bag, Rucksack 1, and that’s how I found the Apollo survival stories. There are photos of astronauts training with their rucksack goggles and sunbonnets, building splashdown canopies, and lounging in the mid-day sun. They’re on a training mission — but really they just look like good friends out camping, learning to braid, and make parachute robes.”
Sun Bonnets in the desert. (Credit: NASA)
Supercluster worked with Gene to reverse engineer replicas from Rucksack 1, as a limited collection of functional art pieces that honor this little known story and the seamstresses and craftsmen who helped make Apollo possible. "The project began with little more than a handful of photos and some early drawings for inspiration. I was constrained to the photos and tools I have. The construction and materials were guided by that. It was a lot of cutting, sewing, cementing. And exploration.”
Supercluster's Dani Walsh models the Survival Quilt and Goggles
A handful of photos were critically important in trying to understand the NASA goggles. We see them from a few angles and have some hint at their construction. But the only way to reverse engineer them is to attempt to build one from scratch.
Dani Walsh, Sun Bonnet, Survival Goggles
“I lost track of the attempts,” says Gene. “There’s not a whole lot of references for goggles like these, whether in NASA or in looking at analog designs. It was a lot of frustrating trial and error.”
The Supercluster Survival Goggles
Gene experimented with different rubbers, leathers, and synthetics on the goggle casing. “Deerskin proved to be the best for its stretch — and it has a very soft, tactile feel. it may not be the most high-tech material, but it helped give these a softness that I associate with something made by hand. And it’s softer against the skin of someone wearing these for long periods of time in a survival situation.”
Dani Walsh with Survival Goggles, Quilt, and Bonnet
Some improvisations and guesses were made along the way. "The straps are repurposed from parachute cord, from the same era-correct military parachutes that became the Survival Quilts. The straps were stitched and reinforced in the same manner as I found on the rigging, to be as authentic as possible."
Survival Sun Bonnet
The sunbonnets were even more of a mystery. They are mentioned in NASA documents as part of the second crew rucksack: ‘The second rucksack contained a three-man life raft, a sea anchor, and three sunbonnets.’ But the sunbonnets are rarely seen in the training session photos.
“The sunbonnets were a big unknown,” says Gene. “They only show up in three historical photos — and are worn in one.
Survival Sun Bonnet and Quilt
“I started with the functionality I could see from the photos and began pattern making. The historical material was a kind of foil, it reminded me of the classic Mercury era suits. I added the paracord drawstring on the back, and a sweatband inside the hat is from the bottom edge of the parachute as well.”
Survival Quilt Carry Bag
To pay homage to those make-shift parachute shelters, Gene used the same process the astronauts were taught — carefully dissect the parachute, reassemble the constituent panels and let nothing go to waste. “I had to get my hands on a real parachute to use for materials, and dissect it stitch by stitch until I had all the pieces I would need. I used two military parachutes from the Apollo era, one of which included the original maintenance log.”
The process was painstaking. “I separated each core to create a flat pattern for what became the quilt panels. I also separated the webbing reinforcement, and that was applied to the quilt. I tried to preserve all evidence of the past lives of these parachutes, and embrace the wear. It took forever, in particular, sewing had to move slowly — I had no idea how thin parachutes were.”
Survival Quilt and Carry Bag
The original Apollo Splashdown parachutes were all made by hand. Only 3 people were cleared to fold and pack them for each mission — Norma Cretal, Jimmy Calunga, and Buzz Corey. These three specialists were so critical they were banned from traveling together, for fear they could all be injured in a single accident and jeopardize an upcoming mission. “I wanted a little nod to that for the quilt — that each was so delicately packed by hand — so I made quilt bags and carefully folded and packed each quilt.
The Survival Kit