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Smithsonian Raises $700,000 on Kickstarter to Save Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

The reflections of Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the U.S. Flag, the Lunar Module and television camera, are reflected in the face mask of Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin when his picture was taken by Armstrong as they walked across the surface of the moon.

The reflections of Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the U.S. Flag, the Lunar Module and television camera, are reflected in the face mask of Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin when his picture was taken by Armstrong as they walked across the surface of the moon. // NASA/AP

How much is Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit worth?

If crowdsourcing is a good measure, more than $700,000.

More than 9,000 people have donated that much to a Kickstarter campaign by the Smithsonian Institution to “Reboot the Suit” and conserve the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which put humans on the moon for the first time. Smithsonian wants to properly preserve the suit, which has been kept in climate-controlled storage for the past nine years, “down to the particles of lunar dust that cling to its surface.”

The Internet campaign, a first for Smithsonian, launched July 20, and met its fundraising goal of $500,000 in just five days. Smithsonian tacked on an additional goal of $200,000 to conserve the suit worn by Alan Shepard, the first American in space during the Mercury flight in 1961. Armstrong’s suit will go on display at the National Air and Space Museum in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and both suits will be part of a new exhibit called “Destination Moon” in 2020. The campaign closes Wednesday morning.

In the 1960s, Armstrong’s suit cost about $100,000—more than $670,000 in today’s dollars—to make. (It was also, believe it or not, created by a bra manufacturer.) The final product was a marvel, as Andrew Chaikin described inSmithsonian magazine in 2013:

In reality, once helmet, gloves and an oxygen-supplying backpack were added, it was a wearable spacecraft. Cocooned within 21 layers of synthetics, neoprene rubber and metalized polyester films, Armstrong was protected from the airless Moon’s extremes of heat and cold (plus 240 Fahrenheit degrees in sunlight to minus 280 in shadow), deadly solar ultraviolet radiation and even the potential hazard of micrometeorites hurtling through the void at 10 miles per second.

So the spacesuit was built to withstand extreme temperatures and dangerous radiation. But to last decades in a museum? That’s a different matter, says Peter Jakab, chief curator at Air and Space.

“All objects are in a constant state of deterioration,” Jakab says. “All we can do is just try to slow it down. Nothing can be preserved forever.” And spacesuits, he says, “ironically turn out to be particularly vulnerable.”

The Kickstarter campaign will fund research, conservation tools, a custom-built mannequin to support Armstrong’s spacesuit, and a high-tech display case to hold it. It will also pay for 3-D scanning of the suit, which would allow curators to, among other things, make a wearable 3-D print of Armstrong’s glove. A donation of $11 gets people a poster, $30 some space ice cream, and $46 a T-shirt. Nine people have donated $10,000 each, which buys them a tour of Smithsonian’s conservation lab in Virginia and other perks.

When the campaign first launched, some people wondered why the Smithsonian Institution—which is federally funded—was asking for money on the Internet. About 64 percent of Smithsonian’s resources comes from federal appropriations, says Yoonhyung Lee, Smithsonian’s director of digital-media philanthropy, and must be spent on research and maintenance of buildings and collections. Projects like “Reboot the Suit” aren’t covered, and most major museum exhibitions are funded by private sources.

“We absolutely need private philanthropy, and we’re not at all embarrassed by that,” Lee says.

And if some guy from Ohio can use Kickstarter to successfully raise $55,000 to make potato salad, surely the world’s largest museum complex can get some money to preserve the suit that made it to the moon.

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