One Small Step for Experimental Space Gear. Many Giant Leaps of Imagination.


ImageAn Apollo prototype spacesuit by Grumman Aerospace Corporation, being tested in the Mojave Desert in the early 1960s.
An Apollo prototype spacesuit by Grumman Aerospace Corporation, being tested in the Mojave Desert in the early 1960s.CreditCreditFritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

An Apollo prototype spacesuit by Grumman Aerospace Corporation, being tested in the Mojave Desert in the early 1960s.CreditCreditFritz Goro/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Dennis Overbye

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A Chinese philosopher once said that exploration was a form of play. So it is fitting that the early artifacts of the Apollo moon landings, the grandest feat of exploration ever attempted, resemble nothing so much as toys. They are expressions in miniature of giant aspirations, reminders of how engineers play and imagine the future.

Naturally, toy spaceships wouldn’t be complete without little lunar landscapes to place them on, or astronaut dolls to ride in them. But these toys had a serious purpose. For protection against the rigors of high Gs during launch and re-entry, test pilots and astronauts sat on couches that were custom-made to fit their bodies. Lined up, the molds for the couches look for all the world as if the pilots have assumed the position for a spanking.

At the time, nobody knew what it would be like to walk in a spacesuit in the trampoline-like low gravity of the moon, or to drive the trackless wastes of lunar grit and boulders. The space age was young, and we were kids with a cosmic gleam in our eyes.

A model of the 1964 version of the Lunar Landing Module designed by Grumman.CreditNASA
A miniature module and astronaut at the Lunar Landing Research Facility.CreditNASA
ImageA scale model of the Mercury space capsule shape B design, showing how the astronaut would sit.
A scale model of the Mercury space capsule shape B design, showing how the astronaut would sit.CreditNASA
Molds for form-fitting couches line a shop wall at the NASA Langley Research Center. Customized seats helped protect Mercury-era test pilots and astronauts against high-G forces during launch and reentry. CreditNASA
Walter Cronkite of CBS News with a model of the Apollo 11 lunar module in February 1969.Credit/Getty Images
Dr. Robert R. Gilruth, left, NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Center director, presenting President John F. Kennedy with a model of the Apollo return capsule in 1962.CreditNASA
Paint and airbrushing work on one of the four Lunar Orbit and Landing Approach model simulators at Langley.CreditNASA
An early model of the Saturn rocket in a supersonic wind tunnel, circa 1961.CreditNASA
A Lunar Landing Training Vehicle at NASA’s Ellington Field in Houston, Tex., in January 1969. Its sister vehicle had crashed the previous December, the pilot ejecting safely.CreditNASA
Suiting up for studies on the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator at the Langley Research Center in 1963.CreditNASA
John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, seen through the Celestial Training Device during training in the Aeromedical Laboratory at Cape Canaveral in 1961.CreditNASA
A model space suit being tested for use with the Reduced Gravity Walking Simulator, to study its effect on an astronaut’s fatigue and speed while walking, jumping or running in low gravity.CreditNASA
Engineer Thomas A. Byrdsong inspecting the Apollo/Saturn 1B ground-wind-loads model in the NASA Langley Transonic Dynamics Tunnel in 1963.CreditNASA
A composite image showing pilot Joe Algranti testing the Multi-Axis Space Test Inertia Facility at NASA’s Lewis Research Center during the Mercury program in 1959.CreditNASA
An early concept for a lunar roving vehicle on a test run at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in 1966.CreditNASA
The Partial Gravity Simulator, or POGO, suspended trainees so that they experienced the one-sixth gravity of the moon.CreditNASA

Dennis Overbye joined The Times in 1998, and has been a reporter since 2001. He has written two books: “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Story of the Scientific Search for the Secret of the Universe” and “Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance.” @overbye

A version of this article appears in print on , Section D, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: Modeling a Future in Space: One Small Step for Man, One Giant Heap of Toys for Mankind. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe