It's common knowledge that NASA is perpetually scrambling for funds, but it's kind of surreal to realize that the government organization that keeps some of the most famous NASA artifacts has also had trouble coming up with the cash to keep up with NASA history.
That's right. After finding that some of the jewels from NASA history were deteriorating, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum officials turned not to the government but to the public to raise funds to preserve and display NASA treasures, starting with Neil Armstrong's suit.
The museum officials turned to Kickstarter to get the funds to preserve the suit Armstrong wore during the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. The project is called "Reboot the Suit" and it's aim is to conserve, digitize and display Armstrong's spacesuit, down to the lunar dust that is still found in the folds of the material.
Even though spacesuits were designed to help astronauts survive in places like the moon and outer-space, the early ones in particular were only designed for that purpose. The outfits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore when they first touched down to take "one small step for man" were only made to hold up for a lunar landing and that relatively short stroll around the moon, not for the next 46 years, and thus the spacesuits are now in desperate need of preservation.
So why didn't the federally funded Smithsonian simply preserve the suits from its own budget?Well, the Smithsonian's operating costs, including basic museum things like research and facility maintenance, is supposed to be covered by federal appropriations but in reality they've been running short for years, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Because of that there isn't much loose funding change rolling around and the federal appropriations the museum gets isn't enough to cover both operating costs and a fairly intensive preservation process like this one.
The GAO report from 2007 noted that a lack of temperature and climate control at some Smithsonian storage areas was even causing some items, including historic planes, to corrode, which meant pricey restoration costs. Thus it shouldn't be much of a surprise — even if it is — that preserving these spacesuits and setting up a new exhibit to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing for July 2019 hasn't been able to make it into the main budget that is covered by federal appropriations. That means the Smithsonian has to find the money somewhere else.
When the Smithsonian officials decided they wanted to both preserve Armstrong's suit and create a fitting display for all of the cool space stuff that NASA donated back in the 1970s, they decided to go with Kickstarter.
The craziest part of this whole Smithsonian Kickstarter scheme is that it totally worked. The Smithsonian raised enough money to meet their initial $500,000 goal within five days of launching the Kickstarter campaign. In fact, that campaign was such a thorough success that the Smithsonian folks have turned around and done what every savvy Kickstarter fundraiser does and raised the campaign goal to $700,000. If they bring in enough money the funds will go toward conserving, digitizing and displaying the Mercury suit worn by Alan Shepard when he became the first American man in space in 1961.
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Right now, Armstrong's suit is stowed away with most of the other spacesuits in the museum collection in a climate-controlled storage area nowhere near the public. Now that they've collected enough money, the Smithsonian people will be able to start work on the suit.
They'll be preserving the spacesuit and making an intensive study of how the spacesuit was created to figure out the best way to halt deterioration and to set it up to be shown to the public in a climate-controlled display case much like the one it now resides in, only, you know, where people can actually see it. "Digitizing" the suit means the museum will take hyper-detailed 3-D scans of the suit so that people will be able to take a detailed tour of all 21 spacesuit layers, and understand the function for each. It will also allow people to make 3-D printouts of things like Armstrong's glove. Pretty nifty, right?
The new campaign goal was set after the first goal for $500,000 was met last Friday. By Monday afternoon, more than $40,000 in donations had already shown up on the site.
At this rate maybe NASA should look into taking the Smithsonian approach to pay for that trip to Mars they're supposed to take in the coming decades. Congress may not always be that interested in funding space stuff but it seems there are plenty of people out there happy to pony up the necessary dough.